He is little known in Australia and Australia is little known to him; an odd situation, given Australia's showcase multiculturalism and the fact that Chao is 'the' multicultural 'artiste par excellence'.
Last year, Sydney Festival Director Lindy Hume tried to reverse this regrettable reciprocity by giving him top billing at the start of the Festival. Chao played opening night with his band 'Radio Bemba' at the Domain and did another concert a couple of days later at the Enmore Theatre on January 9.
Now he is back and this has nothing to do with this year's 'giant rubber-duck - no police on horseback' family-themed-festivities, presided-over by new director Lieven Bertels, but stands to the credit of Michael Chugg Entertainment, leading flag-bearer for international acts Down Under.
The fact that he will again play the Enmore Theatre on 27 March - and the Byron Bay Bluesfest, March 29-31 - a medium sized venue with a capacity of only 2000 (for all its past glories) would indicate that the relationship hasn't changed much.
Yet Manu Chao is big. At a Central Park concert in New York in 2001, the iconic venue proved too small, and during a free concert staged that same year in one of Barcelona's main squares, 90.000 people are estimated to have turned up, causing the crowds to overflow and traffic through the city to be cut off.
If the evidence of numbers isn't enough, there's the wild array of epithets heaped on him by various Media. Rolling Stone Magazine has called him 'the new Bob Marley' and where the New York Times refers to his music as 'the music of the 21st Century', Paul Moreira of 'Le Monde Diplomatique' would have him as 'the Troubadour of Anti-Globalization', an assessment echoed by Violin Punk Nigel Kennedy (UK), who says on 'Because TV' that he is 'the inspiration of the downtrodden and dispossessed' – all accolades echoed by our own Lindy Hume last year when she told Matt Buchanan and Scott Ellis of the Sydney Morning Herald that 'he is something like the holy grail of World Music'.
There are in fact the elements of a legend quickly building up around Chao, based as much on the extraordinary originality of his hybrid music as on his personal iconoclastic posture towards the conventions of international Rock Stardom ("the only hero who didn't disappoint", he says, "was Joe Strummer, of The Clash").
He himself rejects the superlatives employed above. He has denied, for example, being an 'opinion maker' or 'the voice for the Anti-Globalization Movement' (Occupy Movement, etc…).
In 2003, following the merger of Virgin label (to which he signed up in 1987) with EMI, and which in turn involved some serious 'downsizing' (lots of sackings), Manu Chao resigned in solidarity with fired colleagues. A Spanish newspaper states that whereas 'observers expected him to sign-up with some other multinational distributor, Chao surprised everyone by setting up shop with a fired colleague', who founded the modest label 'Because Music'.
In 2004, his all-French album/book "Sibérie m'était contée", a collaboration with Polish artist Jocek Wozniak, met with considerable commercial success in spite of being restricted to outlets consisting of bookshops and kiosks.
Perhaps the reporter Moreira has the best measure of Chao when he describes him in years past as 'marginalised yet supportive, always broke yet generous'… 'A Nomad', some commentators have said. Personally, he reminds me of Leo Sayer's character in the song 'I can dance'. A hobo by name, a man of the road.
A plethora of elements combine to contribute to the development of this legend – the purchase of a yacht in 1993, for example, which he used to visit South America with his band 'Mano Negra', setting up impromptu concerts at every port of call, uninvited, to the delight of the locals; the purchase of a train in the same year, which he used to penetrate war torn Colombia, travelling on a disused railway line that he'd heard about, with stops at every village along the way to do similar concerts for the villagers, guerrillas of the FARC, and drug traffickers - and the by now celebrated rites of passage through bands since defunct, such a 'Hot Pants', 'Los Carayos' (The Dicks), the fabulous years with 'Mano Negra' (named after a Spanish anarchist group), and other stops along the way of his stellar solo career since 1998. Suffice to say that a central aspect of this legend is that of a guy gone from street basking to international fame in just over twenty years, the image of a persona which he has never shed and which fits his sound like a glove.
Nevertheless, I would rather concentrate on the manner in which he is perceived in the Anglo Saxon world at large, to which I would like to add some comments of my own.
The surprising freshness and overpowering originality of his work stems from his unique and virtuoso blend of different musical genres which have been variously described as Latin, flamenco, British punk, North African raj, Caribbean ska, reggae, rumba, salsa and Rock, French pop, techno and rap. If this heteroclite description causes discomfort imagining the final product, then try metaphors like 'collage' or 'puzzles made of sounds picked up during his travels' or indeed 'sounds which are fragmented ideas'. All waffle which attempts to describe the nature of the multicultural phenomenon represented by his music, but can words ever really do justice to music? We think not.
One way to simplify the challenge of categorising Manu Chao's music is to just admit the fact that he is French (which is not denied outright but to which insufficient consideration is usually given). Chao undoubtedly stand at the cross roads of all the influences which the scribblers say, but it is the tradition of the 'chanson', and of the 'chanson réaliste' in particular, sung in the cafés and cabarets of Montmartre (Chao is a Parisian), influenced by political literature and theatre and focused on the poor and the working class , which enable and give direction to the masterly fusions and absorptions that Chao creates. Of course, it is almost impossible to hear the voluble exuberance of a 'Jacques Brel' in Chao's 'globalised' version of the French 'Chanson', but the mastery of word craft and sudden flights of genius are the same.
His songs are burlesque pieces of street theatre in which you can hear the neighbourhood agitation after the police raid (on drugs or illegals) or the plight of undocumented illegals brilliantly portrayed in the cadences and rhythms of rap melodies. Manu Chao is what used to be called an 'artiste engagé', but transposed from the national bourgeois stage to the global multicultural proletarian world.
Sadly, one reason why Manu Chao remains little known in Australia may be the fact that he sings in 6 or 7 languages besides English, a fact that does not appear to pose any problems in other monolingual countries of the world, where he has huge followings.
Go see him if you can anyway. Even if you don't understand the words of his songs you'll be swept along by the virtuoso whirlwind energy of a genuine stage artist, one of global significance.
Well said, and the beauty of having Manu Chao come to Australia is that the long time fans get to see him in the company of other long time fans. Last year's gigs in Sydney were incredible and I fully expect tonight's Melbourne show to be the best gig ever. The energy from both the band and the crowd proves that music is our greatest natural resource. Much love to an incredible man and band.