Manu Chao was born in Paris, on June 21, 1961, into a family of Spanish Republican exiles living in France. He spent his early years in Boulogne-Billancourt.
In 1980, while still living with his family, Manu formed Joint de Culasse, along with a few casual friends. It was a rock band influenced by punk rock (The Clash), rockabilly and R&B. Joint de Culasse later changed its name to Hot Pants, and adopted a slight Latin feel after a stay in Manu’s Spanish motherland. Hot Pants’ album, Loco Mosquito, was released during this period.
From 1985 through1995, Manu wrote and sang most of the songs that made up the albums of his next band, Mano Negra. This group turned out to be the hippest and most biting ‘combo-gang’ to have come out of France’s crossbred culture. The result was nearly three million copies sold (one-third outside France) and legendary stage shows as far afield as South America (with the ‘Cargo’ tour at the beginning of the 1990s).
In 1995 Mano Negra disbanded. Interested in his Spanish roots, Manu moved to Madrid, Spain’s hotbed for hybrid music culture. He spent there two years. In Madrid, Manu hooked up with local musicians and formed a new group, Radio Bemba. They started touring right away. Radio Bemba means ‘bush telegraph’ or ‘word-of-mouth’ in Santo Domingo slang.
During a tour of Spain’s Galicia region, Manu hooked up with the ‘pirate’ culture descended from his father’s side of the family, giving in to the call of the open sea and boat races. Breaking free of all his moorings, he gathered the seeds of his future adventures during his many travels.
Clandestino, Manu Chao’s first solo album, was released in 1998. It contains one song in English, one in Portuguese, two in French and twelve in Spanish. Although Clandestino did not benefit from a promotional campaign or an official launch, the album nevertheless won the hearts of over a million fans throughout France, and nearly two million in various other parts of the world (particularly elsewhere in Europe and in South America). Both moved and surprised by this response, Manu describes this record as a (kind of) troublesome teenager who has grown up all on his own and done the rounds.
In 1999 Manu moved to Barcelona, where he had a home studio in the living-room. A few months after releasing Clandestino, Manu shut himself away again to prepare a new series of ‘collages’: this term refers to his characteristic method of writing, which consists of putting together various bits of material, which then go on to mature into songs.
In 2000, after celebrating the advent of the third millennium by giving a wild concert entitled ‘La Foire Aux Mensonges’ (The Festival of Lies), Manu formed a group with members from the four points of the compass and embarked on a tour round the major Latin American cities. These locations were the source of his second album.
In June of 2001, the new album was released: Próxima Estación: Esperanza (Next Stop: Hope), named after one of Madrid’s metro (subway) stations. There are seventeen songs on the record, one in French, one in Portuguese, one in Arabic, two in English, nine in Spanish and two in Portuñol (“A jumble of Portuguese and Spanish, invented by people living in the frontier zones – my favorite places!“). One of the songs, titled ‘Infinita Tristeza’ (Never-ending Sadness), contains lyrics from all these languages. When asked why he chose such a sad title, Manu replies, “Why not? After all, it sounds good! And also, this song is completely different from the rest of the record“.
“I wanted this album to take people on the kind of pleasure journey they’d plan in their dreams“, explained Manu. “The road is long, but life is too short not to want to jump on the train and aspire to land at the station of one’s choice be it the next stop on the line or one farther along!”
After many years of travel, Manu moved back to Paris, in 2004, although he’s moved again to other places various times after that.
In November 2004, Manu released a new 14 track record, Sibérie m’était contéee, which accompanies a book illustrated by his friend Wozniak.
In 2004 Manu Chao offered to produce the new album by Malian duo Amadou et Mariam formed by Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia. The result was Dimanche a Bamako, released in 2005.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.