Spanish-French singer Manu Chao combines music and journalism, says the author

Much of the crowd at Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, hasn’t heard 52-year-old Manu Chao’s music before or is familiar only with two of his big hits — ‘Me Gusta Tu’ and the addictive ‘King of the Bongo’. But his is the kind of music that finds a natural home in India — big, syncopated beats that are naturally punctuated when Spanish-French Manu Chao beats the microphone against his bare chest in a trademark, amplified heartbeat that is utterly fitting.

In India last month, Chao played to enthusiastic audiences in Jodhpur (at the RIFF Festival), Mumbai and Delhi in classic Chao gear: shorts, open-to-the-navel shirt, multiple necklaces. The crowd couldn’t understand a lot of the lyrics — Manu Chao’s mainstay as ‘musical revolutionary’ deals with immigration, life in the ghettos, drugs and, of course, love — but his appeal was contagious.

Influenced by punk, rock, salsa, reggae, ska and even Algerian Raï, Chao’s music has raised a generation of college students to loyal adulthood. He began in the 1980s alternative Paris music scene with a band called Hot Pants (initially by busking, even), then made it big after he and his brother founded a band called Mano Negra, with the hit ‘Mala Vida’. They were a musical guerrilla movement, playing out of a ship around South American port cities and hiring a train to play to peasants and drug traffickers. Later, Chao began to play with Radio Bemba Sound System (a reference to the Cuban Revolution’s rebels’ communications) all over South and Central America, incorporating the popular sounds of street music. The hit album Clandestino followed; then two more albums, the last one in 2007.

Chao is an unusual star, in that he actually seems to be all about the music. He lingers with students, journalists and hangers-on alike, avoids five-star treatment and VIP areas, seems to hate being busy or scheduling his time, saying that the biggest luxury is not having to decide what to do for the day. Fans jump up on stage — one even kissed him when he played in Delhi at Blue Frog, at his last concert — but he played on unfazed. The trappings are secondary, the simple, open heart of his music first. Excerpts from an interview:

Were you tempted to write? Your father was a journalist, and much of your music deals with socio-political issues.

To be a journalist myself? I found a way to be a kind of journalist through my music, as it talks a lot about social issues. I always thought there was a little part of journalism in my music.

How do you deal with this issue — of when is it music, when is it art? Music first or words first?

You never know when you are going to write a song. I never know what it’s going to talk about, inspiration comes whenever it wants; it’s not me that decides. I try to be writing always; sometimes it’s two words, sometimes it’s a lot. The important thing is to be ready.

You always think you are going to remember it in the morning – do you wait till then?

No, no, no, write it right away, in the moment!

You said in an interview that you wanted to come to India some time ago, partly because of the cows. Any collaborations planned while here?

Yes, I’ve been planning for a long time. I don’t know if I’m going to collaborate with anyone yet, it’s just been a few days: I’ll watch everything, taste everything, do everything, hear everything. Of course I’d like to collaborate with Indian artists, but they will decide, not me.

Any music you particularly like here?

I don’t know too much yet. This first trip is going to be to get in touch with the scene and what’s happening here. I have some information about the folk tradition, before Jodhpur, that was sent me.

What about gypsy/folk music in Spain? Was there ever any desire to collaborate back home?

Flamenco, flamenco? No, I play rumba! In my neighbourhood in Barcelona, we sing in the tradition of Rumba Catalana.

Do you go back often to Latin America? It was your first big accepting audience.

Yes, of course! Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia. Some people think I’m from Argentina. My family is there too, I have a son there. I was born in Europe, grew up in France; my mother is from Bilbao and father from Galicia, they left because of political reasons. [Chao’s grandfather was sentenced to death by Franco].

How do these politics inform your music today? I read that you were asked to represent the anti-globalisation protests by the Italians, for example.

That’s not true, the media sometimes misrepresents things, or need a ‘head’ for something. I was never asked this. But, yes, my music has a message.

When you play, in Barcelona now, where do you spend most of your time?

I play at my local bar, in my neighbourhood, Poble Nou; play guitar with the local kids. I enjoy all of it.

At Bar Mariachi! (It is his Barcelona favourite, I’ve read.)

Yes! (He brightens when we talk about the big favourites of Barca; old bars in Raval which used to stay open till forever.) Those old bars with barrels as tables, in Raval. Now, they are trying to close all of them early these last few years, make money off them. It’s the same everywhere. People are trying to control music, dancing.