Pogoing Among the Bongos


It’s been more than 10 years since Mano Negra broke up, but the blood of that Clash-inflected Euro-rock band still pumps through former frontman Manu Chao’s veins. Wielding an orange Gretsch guitar (which a fan recognized as the very one he played with MN), Chao arrived Monday with his current band, Radio Bemba Sound System, to infiltrate Park Slope’s genteel air with urgent songs of revolution, desperation, and . . . bongos.

Anyone expecting the quiet reflections and sonic nuances of Chao’s studio albums
would’ve been disappointed by the Spanish-born, French-bred, reggae-toned star’s performance. But those deprecations were probably obscured by the crowd pogoing and fist-pumping relentlessly to the frenetic two-hour set. For the first 40 minutes, it seemed like every song was destined to go through the “now rapid ska-punk, now easy reggae stylee” alternations. Not even “Por el Suelo,” Chao’s hypnotic lament to Bolivian earth goddess Patchamama, was spared. But “Clandestino,” dedicated to those who have died trying to cross borders, offered a reprieve, as the band dropped to a groove truer to the recorded version’s laid-back vibe.

Speaking directly to the heavily Spanish-speaking crowd, Chao spent little time flaunting the other languages in his repertoire. But musically, he embraced his stylistic eclecticisms, singing “a little rumba from our neighborhood— Barcelona” and a ska-ified mariachi song before trading places with his percussionist for the spirited, Arabic Mano Negra hit “Sidi H’bibi.” And though the renowned Zapatista sympathizer may fly high the flag of social égalité, one fact remains undisputed: He’s still the King of Bongo Bong.