I didn’t know where to start with this review because there’s just so much to say about Manu Chao. I could have told you about his family’s escape from Spain to Paris during the era of Franco and his subsequent bilingual upbringing. I could have told you about his first band Mano Negra which mixed gypsy/world music to punk and the social and political consciousness of Joe Strummer. I could have told you about how his record label didn’t even bother to release any Mano Negra albums in the US and UK. I could have told you of the demise of that band on a six week train tour of Colombia. I could have told you about how he sings in eight different languages. I also could have told you that he is one of the world’s most popular “world music” artists and about how he produced Amadou & Mariam, bringing them to mainstream musical attention in Europe which bagged them the coveted ‘world music’ spot on Jools Holland’s TV show. But I really need to tell you about all of the above before I can even start to dissect this new recording from Manu Chao, seeing as his various life experiences seem to have all moulded this album in some way.
His previous recorded albums, Clandestino and Próxima Estación: Esperanza saw a musically mellow Manu Chao, ditching many of the punk-rock elements that had so formed his early career. These records were commerical hits in mainland Europe and Latin America and even managed to get people interested in the UK and US. This new album is the first since 2000 and it seems that the political anger has returned in an even more obvious way, while he has refound an interest in the heavy punk inspired guitar riffs of his early days. In the anglo-saxon world, his previous two albums would have been adored by the many a gap-year traveller, wannabe hippy and vegan. This new album will, in many respects, alienate these fans. Perhaps he was attempting to spread his popularity further in the Anglo-Saxon world and move away from his small army of Anglo-Saxon supporters?
The chart countdowns suggest he’s not been successful. As of writing, the album has reached number 71 in the US, 41 in the UK and five in Germany, two in Italy and France, and number one in Spain. It seems that even when he tries to crack the Anglo-Saxon music markets, for critical, as much as financial reasons, he’ll can never be successful. So what if the UK and the US don’t get Manu Chao ? He’ll remain Europe’s and Latin America’s best secret. Fuck ’em, there’s a far bigger world out there than trendy North London…
First single from La Radiolina, ‘Ranin’ in Paradize’ sees Manu Chao sing in English. Well I say it’s English, it’s a simple almost school-like, English which in many respects is brilliant as it strips his simple political message to its bare essentials. As previously written, it references many a current political conflict with droning police sirens and a crunching guitar riff, this is as far from ‘Bongo Bongo’ as you’re likely to get. Brilliantly politically conscious stuff to which you can also headbang.
On La Radiolina, Manu Chao sings in a variety of languages. As well as ‘Rainin’ in Paradize’, we get ‘Politik Kills’ which as you can tell by the title is another political rant, but beautiful in its simplicity. I feel that his poor english really helps here, the song is a collection of slogans that instantly penetrate the mind – politics at it’s most primal, and some would say idealist. But perhaps this is just Manu Chao’s personal politics, strip it of the bullshit and it all comes down to a simple question of morals. The other song sung in English is ‘The Bleedin Crown’.
Elsewhere it’s mainly Spanish songs, a couple of French tunes, and an Italian track which is a first for MC. Musically, it’s a mix of folk, reggae, latin, punk and rock – a lovely mix which showcases MC’s internationalism. He returns to his old trick of using the same backing tracks on separate songs, references past songs in the lyrics and even uses some of the horns which were present in his Amadou & Mariam produced recordings. In addition to this, police sirens, and recorded talking vocals intersperse the songs. It renders the album an air of a pirate radio station in Latin America.
Despite the linguistic barriers, one gets an impression of what Manu Chao is attempting to say, snatches of lyrics are understood and his almost monotone voice seems drenched in sadness. However, this is in complete contrast to the often joyous and liberating music that his band are playing. Despite its “world music” tag, it’s never stuffy, pretentious or boring. It’s more akin to a outward looking and internationally respectful punk rock band.
Overall, this is a wonderful return from Manu Chao. You might not get entirely what he’s on about unless you’re well versed in Spanish, but the passion, feeling and anger all filtre through. In fact, this is probably the most politically aware album of the year, and I don’t understand a quarter of it. I do understand that there’s injustice in the world and that music can help inform, educate and relieve from said injustice. I have a feeling that Manu Chao understands this too. This is a great album to discover and one which may change your views on “world music”.