By Adam Lovinus
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For the past dozen years, Manu Chao, the Paris-born troubadour formerly of the French ethno-punk band Mano Negra, has helped define what critics labeled rock en español.
During their lifespan, Mano Negra served up a fat plate of Clash-influenced Latin punk, reggae beats and North African melodies that defied the boundaries of Europe's mostly vapid pop scene. If anything, Manu Chao's 1998 debut Clandestino is even harder to categorize. Fortunately, critics have coined a phrase for this music, too: ahead of its time.
In the past two years, Clandestino's underground success has been a global phenomenon; the album has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. While Chao has toured everywhere from Spain to Argentina to Mexico City to support the album, this week—including a Saturday show at JC Fandango in Anaheim—marks his first appearance in the U.S.Clandestino's lyrics are a polyglot—French, Spanish, Portuguese and English—played out brilliantly against Chao's trademark nasal voice and staccato-style guitar strumming with the horns and percussion of his entourage, the Radio Bemba Sound System. His brother, trombonist Antoine Chao, appears on the album, as well. Clandestino's 16 songs flow seamlessly from one to the next, heavily punctuated by a frenetic array of Latin American radio broadcasts and other ambient sounds that make you feel as if you're driving through a barrio in Tijuana, Guatemala City, or Rio de Janiero.
Chao says the album was heavily influenced by what he calls "musica de la calle," or street music. It's the distillation of roughly 80 songs he wrote after spending four years traveling around the world. In Spain, he set up a week-long music festival called La Feria de Mentiras, or the Festival of Lies, an act he took to Colombia, where he commandeered a rusting train for his tour of the country—much to the chagrin of the police in that war-wracked country.
Reflecting Chao's nomadic lifestyle, Clandestino is less an album than it is a musical roadmap, taking you on a bittersweet journey through the universal barrio. The music on the album represents everything that filtered through his ears and brain while touring the Caribbean heartland of Latin America, where the music scene —especially on the street-corners of the barrios and favelas—represents an elaborate intersection of African, Portuguese and Latin cultures.
All the songs are sung in first-person, with Chao taking on the persona of the typically less-real-than-metaphorical individual he's singing about. "Clandestino," the album's opening track, casts a tragic light on the plight of the poor, while "Desaparecido" pays homage to the hundreds of thousands of Central and South Americans who vanished in the mobile, continent-wide holocaust unleashed by death squads during Latin America's numerous civil wars.
Perhaps the only funny song on the album is "Welcome to Tijuana," a tequila-fueled tribute to one of Chao's favorite places on the planet. "Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sexo, marijuana," he drawls in his nasal monotone, using Spanish that's not too hard to interpret. "Welcome to Tijuana, con el coyote no hay aduana," he adds ("With the coyote [smuggler] there's no customs").
The son of a Spanish journalist and prominent socialist, Chao is no stranger to politics, yet his music avoids overtly political statements in favor of subtle imagery and storytelling. But Chao dedicated Clandestino to several groups, including the EZLN, (or Zapatista Army of National Liberation). Proceeds from Mano Negra's Best Of CD (released last year), go to Enlace Civil, a human rights organization based in Chiapas—EZLN's base of operations in southern Mexico. And interspersed between the songs on Clandestino are samples of the EZLN's official mouthpiece, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, broadcasting his communicados from his Chiapas jungle hideout.
In fact, it's the natural sound and Latin radio recordings that truly make Clandestino a masterpiece. At one point, Marcos can be heard reflecting on 400 years of exploitation. Yet the next voice-over seems to come from a Spanish or Mexican telenovela—quite a jump in subject matter, but a perfect illustration of how Chao weaves the world around him into a Greek chorus that echoes the point of each song he writes:
"Dame un café," the baritone patriarch tells his wife—"Make me a coffee."
Her frenzied, totally unexpected response: "Serve it yourself!"
MANU CHAO PERFORMS AT J.C. FANDANGO, 1086 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., ANAHEIM, (714) 758-1057. SAT., 7 P.M. $20.