Published on 02/04/2014 by David Birkett
Peter Culshaw gives some background to his critically-acclaimed book Clandestino, published by Serpent’s Tail. The subject of the book – who is often tagged as ‘the new Bob Marley’ – is Manu Chao, a politically active, multi-million selling singer who turns down fortunes in sponsorship and for advertisements, and lives a nomadic, global existence.
When I first set out to meet Manu Chao in 2001, I had been told the man I was looking for had a small pied à terre in Barcelona with no outside space, because the ‘street is my courtyard’. He could, when in town, be found busking in his local bar. He owned bees, but no mobile phone or watch. He was always on the move, addicted to travel, never able to spend more than a few weeks in the same place, never planning more than three months ahead. He was El Desparecido, as he sings on one of most memorable songs on Clandestino– ‘the disappearing one ... hurry[ing] down the lost highway’.
Manu Chao is an elusive figure – but over the last dozen years I've got to know him well, and went on the road with him in Argentina, where he was working with mental patients. Thereafter, I joined him in avoiding drugs gangs while attempting to play gigs in Mexico; travelled with him to a refugee camp in the Sahara; shared his road in Brazil and the U.S. and ended up drinking in bars with him in Paris, Barcelona and Brixton. One of the things that fascinated me about him was that, whereas other stars – including ‘rebel’ ones like Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop – had taken the corporate money and done the butter and insurance ads, Manu was fiercely independent, turning down potential millions in bank ads or sponsorship for his South American tours – a continent where he remains a huge star and sings to over 100,000 people in Mexico City.
I first came across Manu Chao's music on the eve of the millennium, when he released his first solo album, Clandestino, after which I named the book. I sensed a passion and directness in those pared-down tunes that I hadn’t come across since Bob Marley. Clandestino seemed to look both backwards – to a time when songs meant something, when people thought music could change the world – and forwards to a new globalised pop. At the cross-fade of the millennium, it sounded like the creation of someone who was uniting European and South American perspectives, a radical pop masterpiece that just happened to sell millions.
If I’d been more up to speed on French rock music, I would have been less surprised. Manu Chao’s previous outfit, Mano Negra, had been the biggest band in the history of French rock, with legions of followers in Europe and in South America, where they still have a mythical status. Plenty of people agree with their manager Bernard Batze, when he claims that had Mano Negra actually promoted their albums properly, instead of going off on quixotic missions like a four-month boat trip around Latin America, or a rail trip through the guerrilla chaos of Columbia (described in sometimes comic depth in the book), and had they not broken up before their best-selling album, Casa Babylon, was released, they would have been as big as U2 or Coldplay.
Chao’s reputation was as a person of a fierce, uncompromising integrity, upheld in one of the most venal and corrupting industries there is – the music business. The word was that, unlike most other activist rock stars with their jet-set compassion and five-star lives – he actually walked his talk. But surely no-one could have the level of saint-like purity his fans ascribed to him? His musical style – a mix of punk, latin, ska and reggae – was an inventive global cross-pollination, and the more he found his own voice, the more his audience grew. For legions of misfits who don’t accept the world as it is, and for the marginalised whom he supports, Manu represents a beacon of hope. Beyond that lay a string of barely tenable contradictions: a self-confessed ‘shy guy’ who sings to crowds of over 100,000 people in places like Mexico City, a world-wide star who fights against globalisation, a man-of-the-people backpacker who has made millions, a propagandist who turns down most interviews. Even his name and his origins – French? Spanish? Basque? Mexican? – seemed peculiarly opaque.
The lives of Manu Chao, from his teenage years as a Parisian rock’n’roller, through assorted underground French bands, to explosive global success, followed by some kind of mental breakdown and then rebirth with Clandestino, seemed a story worth telling. My book on Manu is in two parts, beginning with the early years in Paris, the rise and fall of Mano Negra, and his spectacular reinvention with a string of multi-million-selling albums. Part two blazes a trail through New York, Buenos Aires, Western Sahara, Mexico, Paris, Brixton and Brazil.
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