Music September 28, 2007 By John Dickie

     His left leg is bandaged, and I wonder if maybe he’d fallen off his bike and grazed his knee, but he says it’s an injury he picked up onstage in Denver. Seeing him perform, it’s hard to believe Manu Chao is now forty-six-years-old. Only up close do you notice the gray streaks in his hair and the wrinkles in his face, eroded by years of wind and dust from roads traversed, and by the struggles witnessed in neighborhoods around the world.
     ”I don’t believe in a single revolution anymore,” he explains, without a hint of resignation. “I have hopes for thousands of revolutions in the neighborhoods of the world. We must get along as neighbors first. If we wait for the powers that be to find a solution for us all to get along as neighbors, we’ll be waiting a very long time. We have to find solutions at our own level.”
     Clutching his leg, he drops a couple of aspirin into a cup of water, and watches as the bubbles fizz up. As he talks, his movements are crisp and purposeful. His fingers swirl up into a tiny whirlpool and snatch at particles of air. When he talks fondly about someone, or expresses thanks, he lightly clasps his hands over his heart, or kisses them and looks to the sky. Like his songs, he talks in a colorful stream of languages, his words a mosaic: mostly Spanish, but punctuated by English and French, like accents in a melody. When talking about the original tapes he recorded on the road in Latin America — the basis for his first solo album, the international phenomenon Clandestino from 1998 — that he would send to friends as audio postcards, he calls them “little snapshots of the moment”. Or when talking excitedly about new friends he made in New Orleans and how they resembled his old friends in Rio de Janeiro, he told them they had to go to Rio, because “your cousins are there, my friend”.
     José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao was born on June 21, 1961, in Paris, France. His mother, from the Basque country, had escaped to France during the Spanish Civil War and was put in an orphanage there when her mother was imprisoned. Manu’s father, Ramón Chao, a renowned journalist originally from Galicia, also fled Spain and arrived in Paris in 1956, having been condemned to death by Franco’s regime. Clearly, the culture of migration and displacement that fill Manu’s songs today was instilled in him even before birth.
     ”When I was a kid, the exiled Hispanic community would gather at our house,” Manu recalls. “A lot of anti-Franquistas would come by on Sundays. These were also times of dictatorship in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and there were a lot of refugees in France. They all knew each other.” Was this how his interest in Latin America was born? “To be honest,” he replies with a smile, “I was very young. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. I probably even found it a bit boring.” But then there was the music. “I remember the records from Latin America we had at home. When I was four or five years old, my favorite was “Bola de Nieve.” (Snowball), the Cuban storytelling pianoman from the ‘50s, who also sang in different languages. I loved that vinyl. Babalú, Mama Perfecta…classic songs. We’ll be playing some later tonight.”

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