When I heard that Manu Chao would be performing in Detroit, I didn’t believe it. Chao barely plays the States, preferring to tour heavily in Latin America and Europe instead. More to the point, though, this is Detroit, home of the White Stripes, Eminem, and rap outfits like Slum Village and Black Bottom Collective. It’s not a normal destination for Paris-born Zapatistas. I found myself wondering how many people here even know who he is. Exactly who would turn out?
The answer came as I waited in an alley outside of St. Andrews Hall in a line that snaked around walls covered with graffiti, random people’s myspace addresses, gum, and God knows what else. There were white guys with dreads, black guys with dreads, girls with colorful, flowing skirts, moms, dads, one guy with a Mexico fútbol jersey, and a handful of ticketless souls hoping for a miracle.
So it was true. The nomadic “King of the Bongo,” a man who is widely considered to be one of the progenitors of Latin alternative, was actually downtown in the “D” at legendary Saint Andrews Hall, where there are neither chairs nor barriers—just a humble stage and a gaggle of fans. It’s a place that lends itself to intimacy in the truest sense of the word. Inside, anticipation built steadily for the sold-out show as the packing of bodies on the floor caused heat to visibly rise. Some went to the bar to get drinks, while others awkwardly danced to reggae and ska songs playing over the speakers.
A ripple of excitement shot through the crowd when the familiar voice of EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos drifted defiantly through the speakers. Minutes later, the members of Radio Bemba Sound System appeared. Chao walked onstage last, waving to everyone as he and band launched into “Que paso, Que paso.” Cutting through the rapturous reception, they immediately followed it up with the pulsating reggae of “Peligro.”
Chao dedicated “La Primavera” (spring) to President Bush and “all those politicians who fight violence with violence,” soon singing the line in which he declares “Nos engañaron con la primavera (They deceived us with spring).” Although the anti-imperialist and anti-globalization star’s quasi-political statements (“You fight violence with jobs, schools, and education”) were greeted with approving cheers, it seemed that most people were mainly interested in jumping up and down while screaming the proverbial, “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
If fans were expecting to hear material from the singer’s upcoming album, La Radiolina, they were disappointed; Chao drew his set entirely from his two proper solo albums. Judging by the electrified atmosphere, though, the crowd didn’t seem to mind. The band pumped out all the old favorites, including an extended version of “Clandestino”—an ode to border crossers who suffer everywhere—which retained a bit of the melancholy from the album version thanks to Gambeat’s steady bassline and Madjid’s bittersweet acoustic-guitar accompaniment.
For what I thought would be the end of the show, Chao announced in Spanish, “All the Mexicans will know this song,” before momentarily turning Saint Andrews into a cantina by singing “Volver, Volver,” a ranchera that soon received the band’s ska treatment. He was right: the Mexican contingent in the crowd sang along, loudly and proudly.
During a handful of encores, the band played a thunderous version of “Mala Vida,” and Chao unexpectedly switched places with former Mano Negra member Philippe Teboul (a.k.a. Garbancito). Teboul quickly took the mic and began singing “Sidi H’bibi,” a punk/Arabic infusion from the now-defunct group’s 1994 album, Puta’s Fever, while Chao banged away on percussion.
Chao, 46, had the energy of a man half his age, bounding around the stage with a red, green, black, and yellow scarf tied around his head as a makeshift headband. Stopping at one point—seemingly overwhelmed by the emotional response of the crowd—the diminutive singer stood at the side of the stage as if in a trance, staring out into the sweaty mass of people who showered him with deafening shouts and applause.
The rest of the band were no slouches either, a point best exemplified when guitarist Madjid began playing the flamenco-drenched opening chords of “Rumba de Barcelona” at lightning speed. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy, and the couple in front of me began, inexplicably, to grind to the song. No one wanted the two-hour set to end, a fact evidenced by the prolonged yelling and manic stomping that continued long after Chao and company lined up and acknowledged all who had witnessed the ecstatic performance.
I’ve often wondered whether Manu Chao’s legendary stature in the rest of the world and among his stateside fans could be diminished by his lack of new material. His last proper solo album was released six years ago, which is plenty of time for “Chaoists” to become disillusioned (thankfully, his new album drops in September). But, his performance and reception at this Detroit venue—one that he had probably never heard of before—left me feeling guilty for harboring a single doubt. Six years without a studio album would erode the fan base of a mere studio singer, but not this globetrotting Spanish-French troubadour. After all, the songs are only part of it: live, he transcends physical borders as well as those of age, race, and nationality, using his arsenal of songs as vehicles for unity. And that never gets old.