All Chao's Children

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

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.

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.  

Fermin Muguruza's recent dub moves on FM 99.00 Dub Manifest and Brigadistak Sound System (both Piranha Germany) reflect his post-Negu Gorriak internationalism, but an equally vital contribution was the group's founding of the Esan Ozenki label in 1992. It became a beacon for indie activity, contact point of reference for fledgling Euro-mix bands, and distributor in Spain for Banda Bassotti from Italy, Todos Tus Muertos, and L.A. Chicano rappers Aztlan Underground.

Madrid's Hechos Contra El Decoro, too. With the title of their best album, Danza de Los Nadie (Esan Ozenki Spain), drawn from an Eduardo Galeano piece and a reference to Pablo Neruda as a rapper, this is one seriously literate bunch, but the in-song jump-shifts between styles never coalesce as smoothly as its Mano Negra model. Only "El Barrio" and "District"—looks at disrupted 'hood life due to market force development—offer the faintest glimmer of a personal touch in the ideological anti-system lyrics.

No such problem for Zebda lyricist Magyd Cherfi, a street-level storyteller who's as fond of celebrating the cultural diversity of his street ("Ma Rue") and hometown ("Toulouse") as no-punches-pulled social critiques. L'Arlene des Rumeurs (Nord Sud/Barclay France) blends raggamuffin/rap with scratch rhythm guitar, but Zebda hit its stride hard with "La Faucille et Le Marteau" from 1995's Le Bruit et L'Odeur—a repeated ney sample soars over hard, chunky guitar chords and bubbling clavinet funk flavored by Arab string flourishes. (The original disc is on Barclay France, but an Esan Ozenki release of the same name combines the best of Zebda's first two albums.)

The minimal, menacing riff to "Mon Père M'a Dit" blends violin and accordion for a French-Arab café feel that carries over to 1998's lighter Essence Ordinaire (Barclay France). The horn-flavored French hit "Tomber la Chemise" and "On Est Chez Nous" celebrate feeling free within the concert tribe, but Cherfi knows the flip side well. Namely, being young, gifted, playing by the immigrant-son, good-boy rules . . . and still hearing "Je Crois Que Ça Va Pas Etre Possible" (I Don't Believe That's Going to Be Possible) from nightclub doormen and landlords.

From the look of their Web site, Kanjar'Oc took that cultural association stuff seriously in Marseilles. Since 1998, they've been converting a château into a rehearsal and recording studio, fanzine archive, Internet access point, and all-around nexus for alternative cultural activity. Kanjar'Oc up the dub and JB funk ante alongside guitar thunder on Kamino Real (Globe Music France) and add occasional shots of son-of-"Won't Get Fooled Again" burbling synth lines on L'Ame de Feu.

Spook & the Guay's Mi Tierra (Gridalo Forte Italy) is local lyrically, and musically could be a graduate of the international ska school—the worst track, "Mi Maleta," sounds like mediocre Madness. Ocho Rios (Higher Groove/MSI France) is just as solid but more global in its lyrical concerns and a new Latin influence before the JA wave rolls in with a Mad Professor dub remix and a shout-out to DJ heroes.

Amparo Sanchez was bred on blues in Granada, then converted to Cuban bolero and other Caribbean styles in mid-'90s Madrid, and her band Amparanoia draw on a changing international cast of musicians. Her big, inviting voice commands the loud and breakneck Feria Furiosa (Edel Spain) and more measured, acoustic Somos Viento (EMI Spain). But Amparanoia's first, El Poder de Machín (Edel Spain), may cut the deepest with the rollicking "In the Night" and the Sánchez-Chao collaboration "Buen Rollito" (a/k/a "Welcome to Tijuana/Tequila, sexo, and marijuana").

But the equation may be changing again, even as Zebda's Utopie D'Occase (Barclay France) and Spook & the Guay's Vida Sonora (Virgin France) join the new Chao release in French stores. The ska-punk-reggae pioneers are decade-plus veterans now, and the live club circuit that nourished them seems to be drying up. With hip-hop as the new global rebel music and Latin the roots tradition choice of the Mediterranean moment, the crest of the next wave could be the Cubanos-abroad rap crew Orishas and Sergent García's rough-edged salsamuffin party.

Or P-18, which sadly pushed aside the techno-Cuban rough-edged sketches of Urban Cuban (Higher Octave) for a gleaming, one-dimensional Euro-house foundation on Electropica (Tabata/Virgin France). Rachid Taha and Zebda closed concerts with techno jams two years ago, so figure that in this ever evolving mix, too—it's what's booming from the speakers in the discos where Mediterranean youth get their weekend kicks.  

A thoroughly mixed bag, but to criticize these bands for rampant eclecticism ignores the context their music sprang from and . . . well, when hasn't mixture and looking back or venturing out to forge ahead with a new synthesis been an intrinsic part of the beast? You might as well fire on Missy Elliott for incorporating bhangra beat to "Get Ur Freak On." And why would you want to do that?

Thanks to Robert El Gato, booker of the Roxy Club in Valencia, Spain, and Florent Solal, a musician with strong Marseilles roots, for help with history and context.

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