Chao for the Soul
by Alison Ross
No one throws a world party like Manu Chao. Born in France and raised under the persuasion of Galician and Basque cultures, Manu Chao croons songs in French, Spanish, Arabic, Galician, Catalan, English, Portuguese, and Italian, and ventures into sonic styles nearly as diverse as that linguistic pastiche.
For years, Chao was the leader of gypsy-punk outfit, Manu Negra. Then in the late 90s, Chao went solo, and became more well known outside of Europe, even achieving modest success in the U.S.
Chao’s first two solo effots, “Clandestino” and “Proxima Estacion: Esperanza,” were exhilirating forays into into el musica del mundo. On those efforts, Chao mixed ethnic musical genres with compelling fluidity, and lyrically intertwined inane humor and grave political themes. Chao is a man of the world, after all, having travelled around and inhabited Latin America, and so he’s seen suffering, and yet cleaves to the sprightly spirit that his music so fiercely exudes.
Chao’s new album, “La Radiolina,” his first release since the early 2000s, is more of the same, and yet pardoxically different. On the first few listens, I wasn’t terribly captivated by the album, but it triumphantly wormed its way into my favor. After all, my tastes being irrepressibly ecclectic, I have trouble developing an immunity to music that genre-jumps like an impetuous teenager. I can’t help it; I’m artistically hormonal.
“La Radiolina” thankfully retains the feistily festive world music-mettle so promiscuously exhibited on the previous Manu Chao CDs, but this time around, the music is anchored by a distinctive rockabilly/country vibe. It’s not so much that every track is in this style as that the several tracks that are crafted in that fashion boldly suffuse the album with an Americana mood that was not previously present in any way. While “Clandestino” and “Esperaza” channeled the euphoric tempos of Latin American tunes, “Radiolina” is more brashly United States American, with its stubborn fixation on rock and roll guitars.
Elsewhere, of course, Manu Chao does weave in fragrant aromas of mariachi, reggae, caribbean and merengue. He also drops in sound effects here and there, such as the police sirens that give songs a certain urgency, and leans on his usual motifs like recurring lyrics, choruses, and so on. In fact, while some may denigrate Chao’s propensity for recurring lyrical lines and choruses, I think this is one of his greatest strengths: mananging to weave a continuous thread through each of his albums, making every effort seem to be an organic sequel to the previous one, rather than an entirely new, artificially grown undertaking.
“La Radiolina,” like other Chao releases, is a sonic stew bubbling with ethnic herbs and spices and lusty linguistic babel. But unlike other Chao releases, it has a more aggressive guitar-centric attitude. Its main blemish is that it sprawls, much like the American landscape, covering 20 tracks, which could easily have been curtailed to 10 or 12, making for a more focused listen.
I’ll likely always prefer “Esperanza” over any other Manu Chao offering, if only because of that album’s centerpiece, the luminescent Arabic-language ballad, “Denia,” which was showcased beautifully along with beatific, infectious rap-reggae hybrids and sassy samba and salsa rhythms. That was my introduction to Chao, and it has inscribed itself onto my heart.
Manu Chao’s stained glass approach to music-making - songs refracted through multi-colored windows - has earned him a world of worshippers. Indeed, there is something spiritually bracing about his globalized musical assault.
At the same time, Manu Chao is the host of a grand secular fiesta, a musical bacchanalia.
In the end, Manu Chao teaches us that we are all indeed interconnected, through the multifarious tongues of music.