Manu Chao Is Music's Last True Radical

Peter Culshaw has trailed the enduring troubadour from a Saharan refugee camp to a mental asylum in Argentina and still doesn't quite know how to nail him down.

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Jan 27 2015, 11:14am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Manu Chao, like falafels or fire poi, is something you hear a lot about at Glastonbury and certain bits of Camden but forget about the rest of the time. Admittedly, Chao, who is French-born and of Spanish origin, is a less well known figure in Britain and America than he once was, although he can sell still out the Brixton Academy or Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

But who actually is the mysterious Manu Chao—aside from the name on two CDs on your dad’s shelf and a Sky Arts documentary? Seventeen years ago, he was a guitar-slinging anti-establishment troubadour with almost the entire world hanging on his every move. At the height of his popularity, he released the solo album Clandestino: a passionate and conscious masterpiece which became an international cult hit, if such a thing can exist, especially among men who wear corduroys and on world music stages.

In the UK, Chris Blackwell—the guy who founded Island Records, signed Bob Marley, and basically turned the planet onto reggae—signed him, remarking that Manu was the most important global musician since Marley. Clandestino sold millions of copies and became an omnipresent soundtrack for edgy backpackers. Manu was cemented as a radical hero.

These days, he continues on his beguiling career path, popping up with little notice in parts of the world and making his interventions. Last month he was in Argentina, doing a gig in Cordoba in protest of the chemical giant Monsanto—a corporation accused widely of contaminating local water supplies to horrible consequences. Recently, he’s announced a tour of Colombia, playing gigs in Bogota and elsewhere in protest of genetically modified crops, animal abuse, domestic violence, and other worthwhile causes.

As the years have passed and limelight has waned, other rock rebels of Manu’s age (he is now 53) have eventually kneeled to accept the corporate dollar: John Lydon shills for butter, and Iggy Pop does more insurance ads than a Russian meerkat.

But, as of yet, Manu hasn’t sold out to The Man. I know this because for five years, with Manu now in his 50s, I followed and sometimes stalked him to every corner of the earth with a music venue, to write the now published biography Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao. And, on entering his world, I found that those stories of protest gigs in Argentina barely scratched the surface—and with all of Manu’s charm come equal doses of total chaos.


The author and Manu, at a bar in Brooklyn.

His manager once told me that when Manu was offered a million dollars a couple of years back by a major bank to use his music for an ad, he turned it down. I’ve heard other, numerous, similar tales, so I believe it. The guy from the bank even said he would fly over with a check and write it to any charity Chao wanted—still, no dice.

It’s this kind of behavior that has come to see Manu described recently—absurdly but magnificently enough—as “the last free man.” What the writer was getting at was that Manu owns all his records, doesn’t take sponsors, only does gigs when he wants to, refuses millions, and rarely stays in one place for more than a week or two. This lifestyle is either superb and full of integrity or plain stupid, depending on how you think. The only cynical thing you could think was that Manu Chao realized it was bad for his image to be any other way because he is one of the last radical stars left, and his fans love him for it.

For a start, he likes to not plan too far ahead. He says he doesn’t know how he is going to feel in three months time. It is the kind of thing that drives the people around him—manager and agent types—crazy. But his wayward, stubborn approach to the rock business has paid off over the years, despite Manu going against the advice of the pros.

He was told his first breakthrough band Mano Negra (for many France's greatest rock band, named after Spanish anarchist group “The Black Hand”) should tour the US, as it was the only way of making it globally. They did tour as support to his then-hero Iggy Pop, but the band hated the regimentation of the American music business. They were used to touring the strip joints of Paris or its most deprived multi-ethnic suburbs, where most bands wouldn’t dare play and audiences would storm the stage.

Plenty of people agree with Mano Negra’s manager Bernard Batzen when he claims that had they actually promoted their albums properly, they would have been as big as U2 or Coldplay. If they had of been, though, Manu Chao’s story would no doubt have been a lot less compelling.

Instead the band embarked on quixotic missions such as a four-month boat trip around Latin America or a rail adventure through the guerrilla chaos of Columbia in 1992 (described at the time as "less like a rock 'n' roll tour, more like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow") when they filled a train with clowns, a tattoo parlor, and a fire-breathing dragon called Roberto and stopped off regularly in spite of being held up by militias and drug trafficking gangs.

But they eventually found their audience in South America, where they still have a mythical status and where they influenced a generation of alt rock bands. When asked the meaning of anarchy on Argentine TV, they trashed the studio and woke up famous. Rather like the Sex Pistols swearing on primetime TV in the UK and being greeting with frontpage headlines like "The Filth And The Fury."

But Mano Negra broke up, bitterly, before their classic Casa Babylon was even released. The group had been set up, in true anarchist style, as a democracy, but Manu was the singer, songwriter, and artistic visionary, and eventually the tension became too great. The others turned on Manu, and when they refused to let him keep the name Mano Negra to use for another outfit, he assumed his career was over.

He spent the next three years on an extended "lost weekend," pinballing around the world, traveling throughout South America and to West Africa, depressed and often suicidal. "A cow saved my life," he told me, explaining he was impressed by the compassion in the beast's eyes when it wandered into a beer shack in Rio when he was at a low point. Manu spent a lot of time off his head on peyote wandering in the badlands of Mexico.

But he had deepened his connection with South America and wanted to support the downtrodden and the oppressed. He made it his business to “use the microphone” to promote causes wherever he could. The career of Manu Chao the solo artist, which spawned Clandestino, thousands of gigs, and three more albums, started here.

Chao, though, is full of contradictions. While he says that “money is the devil” and is happier crashing on friends floors than staying in flashy hotels, he also knows that he needs “fuck off money” so he doesn’t have to take the bait offered by the likes of banks and dodgy sponsors, and it’s cash that keeps him free to travel where he wants. So some people think he is mean. He pissed off the manager of Amadou and Mariam by turning up in Mali with no money, expecting for them to pay for him. The result, though, was worth it for them: He put this blind couple, aged 50-plus in the top ten charts in Europe, and their album Dimanche A Bamako sold half a million copies. He must have been one of the few people on earth that thought this duo had world-beating potential.

He’s suspicious of fame, which he says is one of the most powerful drugs, and is freaked out when chatting to a stranger in a random bar when they suddenly recognize him and treat him differently. But you have to have an ego to take to the stage in front of 100,000 people (as he once did in Mexico), and he says he uses his fame to promote his radical agenda.

The truth is, being a free man is perhaps not always what it is cracked up to be. He says and has sung that he can’t be trapped by a woman or a place, but it’s a lonely road to travel at times. One girlfriend I met had a relationship with him that seemed to be 90 percent based on Skyping. He has a son as a result of a fling with a Brazilian girl who he sees for a month or two each year. But he doesn’t seem to like people getting too close to him. I traveled all over the world with him, to a refugee camp in the Sahara, around Mexico, from canceled gigs to drug gang outrages, and even a week in a mental asylum in Argentina. I spent proper drinking time with him in bars from Barcelona to New York, but as I got closer I got the feeling he was just becoming more concerned that I was getting too close.

When I went to Brazil and tracked him down backstage at a gig, his greeting was “What the fuck are you doing here?" I lined up a film with a cool director and great producers, but so far he is stalling. He likes being under the radar. I got close, but Manu remains an enigma—retaining that impenetrable and sacred aura of the solitary genius, one who seems to be accepting direction and wisdom from some higher level of consciousness that eludes the rest of us.

It’s a veil of mystery that now seems old-fashioned, a relic of the past for artists of the digital era, and something that in its rarity becomes even more fascinating. As one of the songs that drew me to write about Manu—“Desaparecido”, his only autobiographical song—so perfectly puts it, he is "the disappearing one ... hurry[ing] down the lost highway... When they look for me I'm not there, When they find me, I'm elsewhere". I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.

Peter Culshaw’s book Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao is published by Serpents Tail in the UK. Other editions in other countries are forthcoming.