|Photo by Philippe Jimene|
These whimsical opening lyrics to Manu Chao’s “Bongo Bong” song are set to music borrowed from the old Black Uhuru song, “Anthem.” I love it, along with other Chao songs. This song is one of the exceptions, but Chao sings mostly in French and Spanish. And while my understanding of those languages is limited, Chao’s music speaks to me, even when I don’t know what exactly he’s crooning about. It’s the music I crave on lazy, rainy days, occasionally as background music when I’m writing or generally chilling out.
Manu Chao was born in Paris in the early 1960s to Basque and Galician (Spanish) parents. He’s both a singer and songwriter, creating music that is punk, hip hop, ska, reggae, alternative, rock, pop, jazz, you name it. He infuses Latin salsa and flamenco, Algerian rai, French chanson, and Caribbean and African beats into his music. And he sings in a variety of languages – Basque, Galician, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Arabic, and Wolof (an African language spoken widely in Senegal). This amalgam of languages and genres gives him a distinctive sound that you won’t hear elsewhere. Sometimes he’s moody and mellow, other times cheerful and dancey, sometimes light hearted, and at other times political and serious. If it sounds like everything but the kitchen sink, give it a listen. (I’ve included links to some of my favorites at the end of this post.) His music offers something for everyone. He hasn’t made much traction in the English-speaking market, but his songs are well known in Europe and South America, many of them reaching the top 10 in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and much of South America.
Chao started several bands with his brother and friends in the early to mid-80s that were received well and popular in Paris, but these bands didn’t take off in a big way. Then, in 1987, he, his brother, and a cousin formed Mano Negra, which may have been named after an anarchist group in Spain. On tour in South America, they performed out of a retired train. This band did well but eventually disbanded.
In 1995, Chao formed a new group, Radio Bemba Sound System, which gets its name from the communication system Cuban revolutionaries used. With this group, Chao really found his groove. He released albums both completely in Spanish and in French, including different styles of music on each. His Clandestino album includes bands from diverse backgrounds, such as Mexico’s Tijuana No!, Brazil’s Skank, and Argentina’s Todos Las Muertos, in the hopes of recreating the sounds from street music and the bar scene from those cultures. Chao injects political messages into some of his music, riffing on themes of immigration, ghettos, social and political issues, immigration, and injustice.
Punk and reggae historian, Vivien Goldman, writes that Chao is “one of the punkiest artists out there that I can think of.” And yet, his “inclusionary” style, as Goldman calls it, has helped propel Chao into one of the most successful distinctive sounds. Clandestino, for instance, won Best World Music Album in 1999 from France’s Victoires de la Musique awards.
And he branches out. The blind married couple from Mali, known as Amadou & Mariam, are also trailblazers in the Africas, blending Cuban, Syrian, Indian, and Dogon musical styles into their own popular music. Chao produced the couple’s 2004 album, Dimanche à Bamako. He also wrote a song, “Me llaman Calle,” for the 2005 Spanish film, Princesas, and won a Goya nomination for Best Original Song. Time magazine later named it one of the 10 Best Songs of 2007 (when Chao included it on an album he released that year), ranking it number 8.
Watch and listen to a few of his best-known songs:
Bongo Bang and Je Ne T'aime Plus
La Trampa, with Tonino Carotone (of Maldonado from Argentina)