Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System, A Coruña, Spain, May 23
Concert review by Steve Porter
The day kicked off strangely. It was punctuated by electrical storms. I hired a cab with an inebriated driver. The name of the largest concert venue in town drew a blank for him. Fortunately, after giving him approximate directions, we dodged our way through the traffic on the outskirts of town and arrived at the Coliseum in one piece. I then stood outdoors in a line of soaking umbrellas in front of the box office.
Manu Chao was returning to his roots. It was a warm up for the “Tombolatour”, which takes in much of Europe before finishing with a couple of dates in August and September in San Francisco and Austin respectively.
The Galician audience was waiting in anticipation to greet one of their own. Although raised in Paris, Manu Chao’s mother was from the Basque country and his father from Lugo, Galicia. Manu’s father is a writer and journalist who left Spain in the 1950’s to study piano in Paris. He has worked as head of the Latin American Service at Radio France International. Chao family life revolved around music, artists and intellectuals.
For those not familiar with Manu Chao’s music, imagine a Franco-Spanish mix of The Clash and Bob Marley, with a similar anti-establishment outlook. Like the aforementioned English rock band, Manu Chao’s territory is eclectic; taking in reggae, punk and rap.
From a continental European perspective, it is surprising that his music is not better known in the English-speaking world. Perhaps (lack of) understanding of the lyrical content is a contributing factor. Chao can be guilty of rather throwaway lyrics in English. Take this for instance from Bongo Bong:
Mama was queen of the mambo
Papa was king of the Congo
Deep down in the jungle
I started bangin’ my first bongo
Every monkey’d like to be
In my place instead of me
Coz I’m the king of bongo, baby
I’m the king of the bongo bong.
Quite. Catchy song but so nonsensical that even Robbie Williams was attracted to record a version. However, in Spanish, Manu is able to express his political view of the world very poignantly. On the title track of Clandestino (1998), he gives a voice to the illegal immigrant who tried to make the short but hazardous journey from North Africa to Spain. I translate from the Spanish:
I went to work in a northern city
Leaving my life between Ceuta and Gibraltar,
In the city I’m a ghost, in the sea I am a ray
My life is prohibited the authorities say.
Manu Chao’s quirks make him all the more interesting and difficult to pin down. In his early days he was a fan of English “pub rock”, particularly Dr. Feelgood. He also harbours a secret desire to be a chiropractor!
The Paris-born musical polyglot has a base in Barcelona these days but he is almost constantly on the move, having spent a lot of time in Latin America and Africa. His songs are usually sung in Spanish, French and English, although he does use other languages too, including Portuguese and Galician. The latter is one of the four official languages of Spain but it is much closer to Portuguese than Spanish in many respects. In fact, many linguists argue Galician is a dialect of Portuguese.
Manu Chao might be described as making world music in a genuine sense, rather than the ludicrously broad label which is used to cover virtually all forms of non-English-speaking music from Congolese tribal rhythms to Gaelic folk songs from Nova Scotia.
In A Coruña, Manu Chao played a storming set on the night. It ranged from his early work with Mano Negra through his albums, Clandestino and Proxima estación esperanza to his last album La Radiolina.
As at virtually any Manu Chao show, Basque and Galician flags were in evidence. Clutching a Galician flag that had been thrown on stage, he delighted his audience with renditions of a couple of traditional Galician folk songs: Deixame subir ao carro (Let Me Jump on your Bandwagon) and Tua nai é meiga. (Your Ma is a Witch). His Radiolina numbers included Me llaman calle (soundtrack to Princesas, a recent Spanish film about prostitution) and aptly for the occasion – Raining in Paradize.
Manu Chao podcast at The Times (UK)
Times Online Podcasts
Summary of the Galician language debate:
Steve Porter was born in Inverness, Scotland and lives in A Coruña, Spain. His writing has been published online and in various lit mags in the UK, US & Spain. Among them: laurahird.com, Orbis, Cutting Teeth and Poems-For-All. He has contributed articles to numerous publications including The Sunday Herald, Travelmag, Soccer Spain and Three Monkeys Online. His ebook entitled 'The Iberian Horseshoe' is available from Barcelona-based Badosa.