Tours of a Clown

"There's no need for me to go up there," says Manu Chao with two shots of grappa in him and a beat-up acoustic guitar slung over his back. The Venezuelan acid-funk band Los Amigos Invisibles are onstage at the Village Underground. "People are already having a good time."

At a nearby Italian restaurant, Chao and traveling partner Madjid Fahem, lead guitarist for Chao's Radio Bemba Sound System band, had earlier strummed Latinized-reggae bar ditties for three waiters picking up dishes. If the waiters had known that Chao typically plays in front of tens of thousands of people, they might have given him more than two shots.

It's been nearly a decade since the Franco-Spanish troubadour played in New York; last time, his seminally hyperactive ethno-punk orchestra Mano Negra was opening for Iggy Pop. On July 7, he'll make his only U.S. appearance in support of Proxima Estacion: Esperanza(Next Stop: Hope), headlining with Radio Bemba at Central Park's SummerStage as part of a Latin Alternative Music Conference showcase.

It's not the mad cows' fault!
photo: Jean Baptiste-Mondino
It's not the mad cows' fault!

In the five years between 1993, when Mano Negra fell apart, and 1998, when his first solo album, Clandestino, was released, Chao sought a singular singer-songwriter identity. He had become a travel junkie, as he says, possessing an incurable fear of settling down. It struck him, when he was asked to perform for locals in a Brazilian favela, that he plays only a handful of Mano Negra songs. "I had to relearn some so that I could play them with a guitar with three strings, because sometimes that was all that was available," Chao says of his new approach to songwriting. "Today, with one Mano Negra song, I can make four songs."

Friends would call him el desaparecido: When you'd least expect it, he was gone again. A song by that title appears on Clandestino, which he recorded largely with a portable eight-track, and which by any measure is a masterpiece in the vein of Imagineor Natty Dread.

On the 1998 recording, Chao comes off like a guitar-toting Subcomandante Marcos with the eye of Steinbeck. A timeless collage of his travels through Europe, Africa, and Latin America, Clandestinospeaks in a sad tone about the condition of the world's working and immigrant classes. In his nasal squall, Chao sings English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French lyrics over naked r&b and reggae chords sprinkled with samples of telenovelas, radio-host announcements, and toys. Infectious songs like the bittersweet "Welcome to Tijuana" and the reworkings of three Mano Negra classics elevated Chao to cult status in Europe and Latin America, where the album sold more than 2 million copies. But in this country, for the most part, it went unnoticed.

Chao calls Esperanza—named for a battle cry he tried out in Latin American concerts last year—Clandestino's little sister, because it is hopeful in contrast. He adds humor to his social criticism, including a jangly pub sing-along, "La Vaca Loca," about innocent mad cows, and revisits his first CD's boogie-woogie "Bongo Bong" (itself a Mano Negra remake) by letting a Brazilian female rapper lament having too many men to choose from. Then he tries out a language he calls portuñol (Portuguese and Spanish combined) on a dubby bossa nova, "Bixo."

Long before he'd ever set foot on South American soil, Manu Chao imagined what his grandfather's bigger-than-life exploits were as a Spanish immigrant in Cuba. If you lived in Spain in the '50s, Latin America was still the destination to find your fortune. His abuelodied around the time Chao was born in Paris, to Spanish parents in exile from Franco. So his second vision of the Americas came from traditional dance music brought to his home by his parents' friends—also refugees from dictatorships, in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.

By 1989, when Mano Negra first visited Peru, Chao and company had coined and propagated patchanka, a wild blending of rock and Latin party—or pachanga—music. "There was nothing theoretic about what we were doing," says the elfin singer, wearing his trademark Andean wool knit cap and a soccer jersey. "All we wanted to do was to jam."

Mano Negra's influence is best demonstrated on the compilation ¡Fuerza!, released by Higher Octave earlier this year. A study of the globalization of the patchankasound, the comp features two other bands with former Mano Negra members (Barcelona-based Dusminguet and Paris-based P18) and like-minded fusionists such as the Franco-Spanish Sergent Garcia and Iberia's Fermin Muguruza.

Chao points to two groups that influenced his own way of making music: the British pub-rockabilly outfit Dr. Feelgood and Camarón De La Isla, considered the Bob Marley of flamenco music. Being a perpetual immigrant—born to immigrant parents—may explain why the 40-year-old bard's music has no geographic center, except near borders. If Chao's addiction is to travel, then his salvation is to entertain. "Our job as entertainers is to be a clown," says Chao, who wears a silver emblem of Che Guevara around his neck. "If the clown is inventive, well then all the better." His visions of Latin America have become clearer and clearer every time he's gone back. He is inspired by the wives and children of the 30,000 disappeared in Argentina's Dirty War, the indigenous people who took over parliament for a day in Ecuador, the 100,000 student protesters in Mexico City, and the Zapatista cause led by Marcos, whom he met last December.

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