Although his lyrics clearly reflect the outrage he feels toward the suffering he's witnessed around the world, Chao doesn't consider his music political. "First of all, my job as a musician is to make entertainment," he says. "That's my first job. Afterward, we can talk about social issues. But the first job of a musician is to give pleasure to people. I'm a clown, you know, not a politician. In this job, you can pass other messages and other things, but always keeping people having a good time is the best weapon."
Born in Paris, Chao now divides his time between Barcelona, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. In each locale, his favorite activity is wandering the cafés and street corners of his adopted neighborhoods. His apartment is for sleeping and recording music—nothing else, he says. "I drink my coffee in the barrio," he explains. "I read the newspaper in the barrio, watch the television in the barrio. I'm always playing my music in the street. In Barcelona, the street is our place of rehearsal. The Radio Bemba band, we don't rehearse in a studio; we rehearse on the street. People are always all around us. They see us perform, [and] they bring a beer or a joint. It's really beautiful."
On one recent occasion, Chao and a few members of Radio Bemba were jamming on a street corner in Barcelona when a crowd gathered. "Some people came over and one of them said, 'Que bien cantas las canciones deManu Chao,'" he recalls, laughing at the irony: "How well you play the songs of Manu Chao!"
To some ego-driven musicians, such confusion might seem an insult. But for Manu Chao, being mistaken for an impostor is a fitting tribute to his nomadic sensibilities, particularly his preference for the anonymity of the streets over the spotlight of rock-star fame.
"My protection against all the business pressure is that I don't have a schedule," he admits. "Every six months, all my roads are open. If I want to make another record, if I want to go open a bar in Tanzania—I need to know I can jump. Because if there's something that makes sense to me, it's traveling around the world. If I can't see that what I'm doing has any sense, then I just have to wait two or three months, and I'm out."
Which is why Radio Bemba's upcoming European tour is scheduled to last exactly two months. "We'll play Central Park and then tour Europe for two months because we never play for more than two months with the band," Manu explains. "After two months, we automatically split up. It's our way to fight against routine. Every six months, I organize my life."
Chao wouldn't say when or if he'll return to Hollywood, where he played the Palace last December, or Orange County, where he dropped in for a show at JC Fandango's in Anaheim. "To read in the newspaper what I am going to do two years from now is completely surreal," he says. "But every time I decide to change my life and go to another country and do something else, I always go back to my music. I cannot get out. I try sometimes to get out by traveling, but for the moment, no. Because it makes me happy."