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It's a few minutes after 2 p.m., and the Bar Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood has yet to open for business. I was supposed to meet Manu Chao at 2 sharp, but the doors are locked and nobody's responding to my knocking. I run down the street to a pay phone, call and discover that because the sun is shining, Manu—or Mr. Chao, as The New York Times would have him—has opted to spend the afternoon lounging at the swimming pool of a nearby hotel instead of waiting for me at the bar.
Welcome to the world of Manu Chao, the Spanish-born, French-raised son of a prominent socialist journalist; a nonstop wanderer of the barrios, casbahs and favelas of the Third World; and a Dylanesque troubadour who jokingly refers to his albums as "little trips." Chao's first hit song, "Bongo Bong," got the most airplay, but the most revealing tune was "Desaparecido," or "Disappeared"—which seemed especially appropriate during the time I didn't know where the hell the guy was. Although fans in Guatemala and Argentina assumed the song referred to the disappeared victims of their countries' civil wars, Chao insists "Desaparecido" is just a nickname for himself.
"My friends like to call me the desaparecido because they never know when I'm going to go and they never know when I'm gonna come back," he told me during our (eventual) poolside chat last month. Chao was in town on behalf of his band/artistic collective, Radio Bemba Sound System, to promote his new CD, Proxima Estacíon: Esperanza(Next Station: Hope), which Virgin Records released two weeks ago.
Like Clandestino, Chao's ethereal 1998 solo debut, each song on Esperanza flows seamlessly into the next, like a musical road map of his recent journeys. Interspersed throughout each tune are radio and TV transmissions, ambient sounds from South American markets, passing buses, everyday life. Chao's proclivity for background sampling is especially evident on Esperanza's last track, "Infinita Tristeza" ("Infinite Sadness"), combining the melodies of Esperanza's strongest tracks, especially "Me Gustas Tu" ("I Like You") and "Que Hora Son?" ("What Time Is It?"), which feature the nocturnal transmissions of Cuba's Radio Reloj.
"I consider every disc to be one song," Chao explains. "A little trip, a pequeno viajecito. And at the end of the process, there are different songs. Sometimes, the joint between two songs is more important than the actual songs. If I like the two songs but there's no joint, one has to go. For me, the best part of the recording process is taking the disc and re-mixing the whole thing, putting new things on there."
Unlike Clandestino, however, the influence of Chao's musical hero, Bob Marley, is obvious from the initial bars of Esperanza's first track, "Merry Blues," which, in an odd way, is perhaps the purest roots-rock/reggae song to come out since Marley's passing in 1981. "I learned a lot about simplicity from Bobby Marley," Chao says. "There is not a single song of Bob Marley that is complicated. Each song has maybe two or three chords, and sometimes just one. But every time you listen to it, it's new."
"Mr. Bobby" on Esperanzais Manu's Marley tribute. In the song's chorus, Manu wails, "Hey, Bobby Marley, sing something good to me/This world go crazy, it's an emergency."
Chao's philosophy about music borrows heavily from Marley, whose lyrics often contained angry messages wrapped around soothing melodies. "With music, I try to channel my anger," Chao explains. "If you are doing trash/hardcore/metal music that's really angry, the people of Latin America won't understand you. You arrive in a favela in Rio, and they look at you and say, "Okay, very nice, but I don't understand."
Manu learned this lesson a decade ago, when he and his brother Antoine (who plays trombone in Radio Bemba) toured Latin America with their French ethno-punk band Mano Negra, which Chao describes as a "much harder group" than Radio Bemba. "The city people and the students in South America understood us because they had the culture of rock music," he recalled. "But the people of the pueblo really didn't understand us. They would tell us, 'Okay, but how can we dance to that? All day long, we have trouble trying to make a living and trying to feed our sons. Now, we have five minutes to party. Hey, don't bullshit my head.'"
Easy on the ear but heavy on the soul, Manu Chao's music is all about what he likes to call "malegria," a word he created that combines mal, or "bad," and alegria, which means "happiness." "Malegria is the alegria that is also sadness and hardship—the kind you get in the barrios," he explains. "In the suburbs of Panama or Brazil or Colombia, there's no time for depression. In the First World—you and me—our esperanza is more something for the future, but we don't need to make a living everyday to feed our children. We don't need this kind of esperanza, the real raw esperanza that tonight my children have to have dinner. No time for depression in South America. You've got depression there, you're dead."
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."