‘This is what he is – an advocate for dispossessed people, a believer in human rights, but beneath it all he is human‘ – Niall McGuirk on Peter Culshaw’s biography of Manu Chao. I‘ve always been stubborn. It’s a trait I recognise when talking to my stubborn Father. For Example I used to really like the Cardiacs, I went to see them twice and their anarchic take on live show with songs going in different directions was a great challenge to me being brought up on three chord punk rock. And then someone told me they sounded a bit like Genesis, or was it Pink Floyd? I dunno, I had spent too much time avoiding Genesis and Pink Floyd to find out, so I kind of gave up on the Cardiacs. Harsh but true. I was the same way with bands on major record labels. If they had the machinations of the music industry behind them they didn’t need my support. So I never listened to them. Of course this was after many of the bands that had introduced me to music in the first place. Bands like the Clash, Damned and the Pistols. But the second wave for me was all about bands bringing out their own records. So Mano Negra came along and went. Sure weren’t they with Virgin Records?
I spent the first 100 pages of this book confusing Manu Caho with someone from Negu Gorriak. You see I was involved in helping Negu Gorriak from Euskadi get a gig over here with Anhrefn in the early 90’s. Mano Negra were from Paris but spent a lot of time championing causes like the Basque Seperatist movement and in the midst of time they had morphed for me. And then the penny dropped. This is not the singer from Negu Gorriak!!
It certainly didn’t spoil my enjoyment and this book was been a real learning experience for me, whether learning about Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina or Mexico where Mano Negra played and Manu Chau is a huge star, or a reminder of the recent history of France and Spain. When Manu started playing, Spain was escaping the tyranny of Fascism. For much of the 80’s there was messiness and freedom as fascists fell, rose in popularity, and fell again. That trend is now emerging once more as people blame fellow humans for their plight.
When you read that the name Mano Negra comes from Andalucian anarchists in the 1880’s and also Hispanic New Mexicans fighting for land and water rights in the 1960’s and 70’s and signifies as the Black Hand, you get a preview into Manu Chao’s activism. This is what he is – an advocate for dispossessed people, a believer in human rights, but beneath it all he is human and, like us all, has flaws and contradictions. Thankfully these are included in here although it kind of reads as a footnote: By the way, he enjoys Coca-Cola when he has a hangover; he may have looked at porn on his phone.
My guess is the author, Peter Culshaw, felt an imperative for us to see Manu as containing some flaws. Most of the 350 pages are tales of how Manu, through his music, tries to be inclusive and no doubt there will be the backlash, as humans being humans we will search for flaws. In much the same was as when some people hear about vegetarians they automatically think about the clothes they are wearing and take some joy if they find out there was cruelty involved in their production, people will be looking for the contradictions in Manu’s lifestyle.
When Mano Negra (Manu’s third band to record) were looking to release a record there was strong internal discussion on whether they sign to a major – “the angel of justice versus the devil of money”. There was a realisation of the contradiction of being an advocate of anti-globalisation whilst also being signed to a subsidiary of EMI, however the choice was made to further the message as they saw it.
We read of the journeys of that band like the train journey through Colombia when Mano Negra reactivated disused train tracks and brought their own customised train around the country. Much like a traveling circus, they wanted to play to the people. “The Train of Ice And Fire” it was called. This was a journey of free gigs an free spirits travelling through. Think about it – there are villages in Colombia that don’t experience tourism. It was (and still is) a dangerous country at war. Like our own history in Ireland there were families battling it out against each other, sometimes fatally, and then a motley crew arrive into town after much negotiation with some army or another to allow them into the village. And their mode of transport is the train tracks that have been unused for years!
This is more than a biography. The book highlights the struggle in Dakhla, Algeria where up to 200,000 Sahrawi people live in refugee camps and have done so for more than 30 years. There are many references to Mexico and the Zapatistas, with royalties given to the cause. The revolution and struggle in Chiapas is dear to Manu’s heart as he talks about the politics of the neighbourhood, “you cannot change the world but everyone can change their neighbourhood“. We read of when Manu went to Rio to live among the poor despite the danger of the favelas.
It was also the tale of the death of the band who couldn’t sustain this idealism whilst trying to pay bills at home. Mano Negra finished in Paris playing to over 50,000 people but the band couldn’t sustain the lifestyle. But there’s more to Manu Chao then Mano Negra and we hear of his solo shows, his constant travelling, his eccentricities.
I am struck however by his respect for Joe Strummer. How many rock and roll tales start with a Clash song or a gig? “When I began to write songs, The Clash were my model“. In a similar way to Irish Journalist Michael McCaughen who has written about Latin America as well as Ireland and indeed travelled to Nicaragua on foot of The Clash’s Sandinista, Manu writes songs as therapy, to address the rage he feels about this world.