Manu Chao

Diane Hightower

When I heard that Manu Chao would be performing in Detroit, I didn’t believe it. After all, we don’t get a lot of Paris-born Zapatista supporters around these parts.

Manu Chao

Manu Chao

City: Detroit, MI
Venue: Saint Andrews Hall
Date: 2007-06-19

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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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