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Political Troubadour

At the Jodhpur RIFF,Spanish-French musician Manu Chao spoke about being a vagabond and a messenger for the world.

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
October 26, 2013 3:42:30 am

It was the final set of the second day at Jodhpur RIFF. The fairly intoxicated crowd at the Zenana courtyard within Mehrangarh Fort would soon be hit by the effervescence of Manu Chao. The Latin alt musician — one of the finest names to represent rock ‘n’ roll on a global stage — nosedived into an upbeat rhumba as he entered the stage with his four piece band Manu Chao La Ventura.

This was Chao’s maiden gig in India and soon enough,the 51-year-old musician was beating his bare chest with the microphone for rhythm that had the energy going through the roof with his punk-meets-reggae-meets-blues,with Madjid Fahem’s guitar pulling off some interesting,fast flatpicking. The gig turned out to be one of the best gigs RIFF has seen in its seven-year run. The excitement ballooned with every song Chao sang in a variety of Latin languages that told stories of war,solidarity and conversations with his father.

It’s hard to believe then,when Chao says later,“I am a shy guy and always get scared before getting on the stage.” He is world famous for his left-leaning explicit political views. But he insists he has always been averse to being the centre of attention. “Music has been my therapy to fight all the awkwardness,” says Chao. As a teenager,he would stand in a corner and watch his friends have fun. “A perfect place to write the songs,” he says.

Growing up in suburban Paris,José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao listened to Latin American music his father played. Music on the streets taught him the art of synergising genres. Then there were truck loads of Lou Reed numbers that taught him English. In a music career that began with busking at 18,Chao went on to form a band called Mano Negra that set sail in a cargo ship with a small stage and performed at South American docks. Later,in the early ’90s,the musician put in all his money to buy an old train to travel through war-torn Columbia,performing free shows in villages,where the audience included drug peddlers and guerrillas.

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“We had great adventures there. I feel the real border is between the city and the countryside and everything changes when you play for the country folk. There was so much violence that we had to negotiate to do free shows. It was a fulfilling experience,” says Chao,who also recorded with the inmates of a psychiatric asylum in Mexico. “Injustice hurts. As a musician,you’ve got access to the microphone,which means a lot of people can hear you. So it is my responsibility to speak up,” he says.

Chao likes going to unknown taverns in various countries,where people can’t identify him. “There is a kind of reality in bars,sometimes a cruel one. If they like it they do,if they don’t,they don’t. It’s a good reality check,” he says.

Chao sings in French,Spanish,English,Italian,Arabic,Portuguese,and Galician,and his songs are redolent with political overtones (his album Clandestino was about music changing the world and siding with the marginalised). But how does the message reach the people? “A song has various ways to be expressed and understood. When I write a song,I need to understand it. After that people can interpret it the way they want to. You just have to be careful to understand your own song. Sometimes it can just be the vibe; words don’t matter,” he says.

Chao’s concert took quite a few encores before it ended. He left the stage and the air heavy with lines from his song Desaparecido (The Disappearing One) — Hurrying down the lost highway/ When they look for me I’m not there/ When they find me/ I’m elsewhere. These words are likely to linger for a while.

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