Multicultural Minstrel

It happens all the time: A pop musician wins over legions of listeners in Europe but fails to resonate with many Americans, who tend to treat non-English lyrics like Brie: interesting but not for frequent consumption. The music might be catchy, but unless it’s “La Bamba” or the Beatles breaking into French in “Michelle,” we’re not collectively interested.

In the case of singer/songwriter Manu Chao, few listeners anywhere would be able to grasp all his lyrics, since he sings in six languages on his new album, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (“Next Stop: Hope”). Chao’s music is just as hard to pin down, incorporating Caribbean, Latin, French, pop, rock, hip-hop, and Arabic flourishes, along with a cacophony of idiosyncratic samples and sounds–from revolutionary speeches to cartoonish cackling. Impish and vibrant, it’s the sound of cultures colliding at a wild party.

Chao’s global aesthetic isn’t a forced exercise in multiculturalism but rather a natural expression of his roving soul. Born in France to Spanish leftists who had fled Franco’s rule, Chao, 40, first achieved fame as lead singer and chief songwriter for Mano Negra, a feisty, punk-charged “combo-gang” that laid the groundwork for today’s fertile rock en español scene while selling 3 million albums and touring internationally in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Not content with helping spawn a genre, Chao went solo and indulged his vagabond ways, traveling extensively in Africa and South America. Streetwise and populist, he began playing free, spontaneous shows before his official gigs, and he once bought an old train for a tour of the violence-wracked Colombian countryside. Musicians, magicians, and even trapeze artists ended up joining the rolling party, turning it into a punk South American version of the Merry Pranksters.

Chao’s fun-loving ways and sometimes silly lyrics can’t obscure his strong political bent. He has sung about the “disappeared” of Chile (“Desaparecido”), oppressed African immigrants in Spain (“Clandestino”), and the plight of “poor Algeria” (“Denia”). Beneath his laughter lurks a nagging melancholy about the state of the world. “The more I travel, the sadder I get,” he told an interviewer, citing the growing poverty and desperation he sees.

Chao’s low-fi recording process is as communal as his lifestyle, and friends who drop in while he’s taping on his portable eight-track–even his grandmother, in one instance–might find themselves prodded to perform. “If you only work with professional musicians, it’s not so fresh,” he has said.

Like many a former punk, Chao has discovered ancestral soul mates in folk and reggae music, and he’s mining their rich tradition of dissent and empowerment. He has been enthusiastically compared to Woody Guthrie and Bob Marley for his consciousness-raising, anti-establishment stance and grassroots bonhomie. He hasn’t discouraged such comparisons, patterning “Desaparecido” after Guthrie’s “Deportee” and singing an ode to Marley, “Mr. Bobby.” But links to such gargantuan legacies are stultifying; Chao seems perfectly capable of crafting his own reputation.

The new album, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, is very much an extension of its predecessor, 1998’s Clandestino, which was a number one album in Europe and Latin America. The albums share motifs and sounds, sometimes distractingly so, but together they represent a strong opening statement in the solo career of a man who appears to have a lot more to say.

At middle age, the self-described “loco mosquito” has settled down a bit, maintaining a base in Barcelona. But he’s unable to sit still for long and is already looking ahead to his next recording. Chao has spoken of attempting an album of “techno with soul,” a reaction to a trance-dance scene that is too impersonal and isolating for a big-hearted extrovert like him.

Meanwhile, his lack of stateside pop stardom doesn’t seem to be eating at him, and it appears unlikely he’d ever go all-English in an attempt to crack the Top 40. Besides, his aggressive multilingualism affords him a willful ambiguity. If he wanted to be perfectly understood, he’d offer complete English translations of every song. As it is, curious listeners must try to figure them out–which seems to be part of his point.

Chao has said he hopes Esperanza “makes people hungry.” It has, and they’re eagerly awaiting the next course.

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