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I don’t usually talk about Manu Chao’s greatness. In fact, I don’t like to talk about him at all. Most of my circle is unfamiliar with his music, and I like it that way.
My friends are mainly indie rock die-hards who look at me cock-eyed when I tell them Manu Chao is one of the most powerful artists on the planet. Some people believe, and I’m one of them, that if anyone can carry on the weighty mantle of Bob Marley’s legacy—with all of its musical, spiritual, and political import—it is Chao. Much like Marley before him, Chao—whose diminutive size only accentuates his gargantuan persona—celebrates the working man’s struggle for survival, purpose, and dignity amidst governmental, institutional, and political oppression. And, underneath all that left-wing raging against the machine, is a bubbling sense of joy, and the hope that, through music and peace, we can all find a better way to live our lives.
My reasons for exalting Chao (if not to the world, but within) don’t necessarily have to do with his life-affirming message or his incredible gifts as a songwriter. No, my reasons are more personal. Less than ten percent of Chao’s songs are sung in my native (and only tongue) English—he also sings in Spanish, French, Galician, Hebrew, Wolof, and several patois dialects—and yet I understand them all on a profoundly deep level. When Marley toured Africa in the late ‘70s, millions turned out to see him, many of whom spoke barely a word of English, the language he used in his songs. Why? They understood without understanding. Somehow language is no barrier.
Born in Paris, the son of Spanish political refugees, Chao was raised bilingual and with an acute awareness of the world around him. In his teens, he became entranced with the English punk scene, forming Mano Negra, a hyper-political punk outfit considered by many to be the French equivalent of the Clash. After Mano Negra disbanded in 1995, Chao spent several years traveling through Africa and Mesoamerica, often with a security detail supplied by local guerillas. He would stage impromptu concerts in the town squares of local villages, affording many in the indigenous audiences their one and only glimpse of a world-class musician. He was an enigmatic vagabond—purposely elusive and always on the move. His friends came to calling him “Desaparecido,” the “Disappeared”.
These global wanderings, and the music they helped produce, have bestowed Chao with myth-like status in parts of the world like Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. But, strangely, Chao has never been rightfully recognized in the United States. It seems America’s tabloid-obsessed society only tolerates elusiveness from beloved home-grown kooks like Prince, not real, road-worn boys born from France.
It has been more than five years since Chao last performed in the United States. He played Central Park’s Summerstage in 2001 in support of his second (and most recent) solo album, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza. Prior to that, his last NYC appearance was nearly 10 years earlier, as an opener for Iggy Pop in Mano Negra. In interviews around the time he played Central Park, Chao would often say that he might make an album the following month, or never again. Since then, outside of his brilliant production on Malian husband-wife duo Amadou & Miriam’s release last year, he has leaned hard towards the latter.
So, for a man who hasn’t released an album in five years, and who has performed in the US only twice in two decades, it was remarkable to see a Brooklyn audience eager to embrace him as one of their own. The energy emanating from the diverse crowd was positively palpable—you could taste it in the summer sweat, and it felt great for the soul. This was no rock star on stage, but a musical soothsayer equipped with the right remedy to take away pain, if only for a few hours. Whether it’s a testament to Chao or to Brooklyn is hard to say, but in all my years of concert-going I’ve never seen a crowd so ethnically diverse and yet so at peace within itself. This was a crowd united by one man’s music, its innate joy, its power, and its message.
Chao’s live performances are famous for becoming jump-ups—more energized and spiritually charged than his recorded output—and tonight’s performance was no exception. Both Marley and Chao have a knack for crafting songs that sound beautiful and effortless, and that strip away all static to allow a direct conduit to the artist’s message. When songs this great are laid in the hands of compelling figures that double as prodigiously gifted performers, the songs positively come alive. Even slower numbers such as “Dia Luna Dia Pena” and “Welcome to Tijuana” morphed into upbeat raves. Chao strummed their power chords while doing jumping jacks, then returned each number to its swaying melodic core. Chao had a boxer’s moves, not to mention a boxer’s heart—which he fist-pounded repeatedly to show where he was feeling it.
Chao’s deftness as a songwriter is matched only by his talent scouting. He surrounds himself with some of the most gifted musicians in the world, converting them into fervent apostles of his musical message. Radio Bemba Sound System, Chao’s band since 1995, played with Clash-like intensity for the entire three-hour set. Bassist Gambeat and drummer David Bourguignon could compete with Sly & Robbie for the crown of reggae’s greatest rhythm section. Moreover, they’re able to turn an easy skank into “White Riot” in two seconds flat. If the Wailers’ original Barrett Bros. had been slugging Red Bulls and espressos instead of puffing herb, they’d have sounded something like this duo.
As is typical of his albums, which have the feel of a pirate-radio sound system, Chao returned to key musical ideas several times throughout the evening. Tunes like “Mr. Bobby” and “Clandestino” were played in their entirety, with the audience singing every word, and then sprinkled sporadically through the rest of the set as recurring themes.
Chao and company were firing on all cylinders during stomping jams like “Machine Gun” and “Rumba De Barcelona”. On the latter, Radio Bemba virtuoso guitarist Madjid plucked out a stirring flamenco solo that left the gaping audience momentarily stunned, before being thrust back into the earth-gripping groove that defined the entire evening.
Amid constant cries of “Otra” when he left the stage, Chao performed no less than five encores, and if not for City Park curfews, it appeared that this 45-year-old could have played another three hours. During one of these encores, two fans stormed the stage and began closing in on Chao. Security soon followed, but Chao called them off with a wave of the hand. He embraced and high-fived the fans, receiving instant cheers from the audience. Similar moments happen all the time at concerts, but in this context two elements were noteworthy. First was Chao’s control over the behavior of both the fans and the security guards. He diffused a potentially volatile situation with a few cool waves of his hand and some sideways glances—all while continuing to perform and never missing a note. Second was the genuine fear I felt for Chao’s safety—that these fans could be potential assailants, or worse. Chao is outspokenly pro-Zapatista, anti-Bush, and anti-G8 and their globalization efforts. Moreover, his power to rouse those around him—like Marley or John Lennon—make him a political target. But, true to form, Chao would have none of my fear. He is a pacificist at all times, and as such, welcomed these fans as brothers.
Since he hasn’t played the U.S. or released an album since well before September 11, Chao and his message may have miraculously gained converts without even courting them. Tonight, the green, red, and, gold clad Chao made you want to hug your sweat-drenched neighbor, whether you spoke the same the language or not. Indeed, Chao’s is a word that spreads itself, and in a time of so much global strife, his message is necessary, and more powerful than ever.
A new album is rumored to be in the works. One can only hope Chao’s controversial politics and elusiveness will continue to shield him from the mainstream commercialism that has befallen such soul rebels as Marley and Ché Guevara since their deaths. Let Marley and Ché adorn the t-shirts, and let Chao avoid the same fate until long after he is gone. For now, his loyal devotees feel him, know him, and need him to remain with them—not on their t-shirts, but in the hearts that beat beneath them.
Manu Chao Desaparecido