All Chao's Children

The Mediterranean Rim Shot (Not Heard Round the World)

Manu Chao may be an anomalous ripple breaking the surface of the Anglo music world, but the Energizer Bunny skankster is riding the crest of a wave that's been developing for more than a decade in southern Europe—not that anyone outside the Mediterranean rim really got a chance to hear it grow. What goes on musically in France, Spain, and Italy passes undetected on the radar screen of the dominant U.S.-Anglo pop world, short of a freak trend breakout à la Paris house or Daft Punk/Air pop.

It's been called mestizaje after Mano Negra's hell-for-leather patchanka charge, but many reject that as too limiting a title for a far-from-monolithic phenomenon. Strongly anti-racist, internationalist, and pro-immigrant, it's the soundtrack for urban youth living on the Euro-immigration, anti-globalization front line. Born in the era when Jamaican riddims anchored the international youth music underground, one crucial element is a rhythmic vitality largely missing from U.S. rock forms for years.

The best metaphor for the Mediterranean mix may come from post-tropicalia Brazil—Chico Science and Naçao Zumbi's satellite dish in a mangrove-swamp mangue-beat logo. Listen globally, but flavor locally with differing doses of common spices—depending on what you like, who you are, and what's going on around you. The cauldron bubbles under and over with rock, reggae, dub, punk, ska, James Brown funk, ragga, rai, Latin, hip-hop, techno—to be adapted in distinctly individual and constantly shifting proportions.

Kanjar'Oc funk hardcore at the château.
photo: Olivier Siddi
Kanjar'Oc funk hardcore at the château.

It's strictly personal, and that extends to the groups I'll discuss here—you make your own connections based on what you like and what you've been able to hear. It's no stretch for me to view Ozomatli, Asian Dub Foundation, Chico Science, the Neapolitan melody meets On-U Sound dub science of Almamegretta, or first-wave Latin Alternative bands Maldita Vecindad or Todos Tus Muertos as global counterparts of recent Mediterranean-rim rock.

But even focusing along the rim, where do you draw the line? French raggamuffin and hip-hop? The fledgling Spanish hip-hop scene, or Barcelona bands like Dusminguet and Macaco? The hand percussion brotherhood linking the Berber-reggae Gnawa Diffusion, Ojos de Brujo's Catalan rumba, and the irreverent flamenco-billy of Mártires del Compás? Rachid Taha's arena-rockin' rai or the Aisha Kandisha dub/techno crew? Any one of these could fit under the umbrella and open up another who/where/when/why/what Pandora's box of history and influences.

But the ones who count all started out as pariahs. In the English-language sphere, they run up against the long-standing conviction you can only rock in English; to world music ethno-purists, though, the music is still way too rowdy and bastardized. On the safe European home front, the music industry-as-industry reigns supreme, perfectly content to import Anglo-American stars and cult heroes, and push their own tepid mainstream pop and rock idols.

Regional factors come into play, too—Zebda and Spook & the Guay emerged from Toulouse in southwest France but only leaped to national standing after catching the ears of Paris-centric media and labels with gigs at the "Springtime in Bourges" festival. Singing in their own language or a regional dialect was crucial to staunch Basque nationalist Fermin Muguruza and Italy's Almamegretta. But Chao, Amparanoia, and Spook & the Guay all mix their tongues up.

Sometimes it's a blessing not to get the language. Muguruza's lyrics are so relentlessly ideological you might hit eject before realizing how skillfully he frames his solidarity shout-outs and rabid-pit-bull snarl in the rampaging maelstrom of catchy choruses and guitar hooks galore on Negu Gorriak's fairly staggering Borreroak Baditu Milaka Aurpegi (Esan Ozenki Spain). And if "Ils sont à fond, font des bonds" comes out sounding like "He's so hardcore, so hardcore" to English-geared ears, that's basically what "Les Hommes en Colère" on Kanjar'Oc's new L'Ame de Feu (Small Axe France) is about anyway.

The history is sketchy, but it starts sometime in the mid '80s with Mano Negra and Les Negresses Vertes in France and in Basque country with Kortatu, the band formed by Muguruza after he saw the Clash and immediately got a Telecaster. In many ways, the Mediterranean-rim scene parallels the development of indie/punk culture, except 10 years later. Pick up instruments and learn to play as you go; build a following with live gigs for restless youth out to beat the boredom, sweat out the frustrations, and celebrate their new-tribe selves.

Crucially, there were a lot of places to play by the early '90s, aided in France by a 1901 law permitting government support of cultural associations. In Marseilles, ragga and hip-hop dominated, the former fueled by Massilia Sound System and the latter by IAM and Akhenaton. The ska-punk-reggae connection ruled Toulouse, with Spook & the Guay following in Zebda's wake. Same scenario in Spain, but more in the DIY vein sans government support once the seismic political-social shakedown of the 1982 transition to a Socialist government passed.

As for artists, Manu Chao you're at least aware of, and you can get caught up on some musical backstory when Radio Bemba Sound System comes out on Virgin any day now. Over half the tracks on the career-spanning live album date from his Mano Negra era. Suffice it to add that Mano Negra's guerrilla-style tours of small clubs and DIY events in "marginal" city neighborhoods in France and Spain during the late '80s were crucial homegrown inspiration.

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