Despite the urging of various friends, I came late to Manu Chao, and I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since. If I were my kids’ age, I probably wouldn’t have been listening to much else for the past decade. La Radiolina (2007) is one of my very favourite albums of recent years, songs such as “13 Dias” and “Besoin de la Lune” forming an endless source of energy-renewal. So I’m pleased to have been reading Peter Culshaw’s Clandestino, a biography of the singer who, more than anyone, accepted the responsibility of carrying the spirit of Bob Marley into a new century. It’s been telling me most of what I needed to know about the creator of a music that blends first world languages, third world rhythms, and a rebel soul also heavily influenced by the British punk movement of the late 70s.
Subtitled “In Search of Manu Chao”, the book (published by Serpent’s Tail) incorporates a full account of the subject’s life and career from his birth in a Paris suburb in 1961 as the son of Basque and Galician parents and his early life as a street kid through his early success with the band Manu Negra to his solo superstardom. The focus often shifts, however, to become the story of the author’s engagement with the artist and his music, which takes him around the world, from Algeria to Brazil to New York to Brixton, and through many encounters and conversations.
Culshaw never bothers to hide the fact that he is awestruck by Manu Chao, and I can’t find it in me to criticise him for that. His enthusiasm is so transparently genuine that it’s impossible to get too exasperated by paragraphs that begin like this: “I ring up Manu’s management in Paris to try and find out where Manu might be. No word. So I hole up on the beach for a few days, in a fishing village called Prea, a really tranquil place. It’s so beautiful that I feel the urge to express my gratitude to someone, and who better than the deities? Signs and portents seem to be everywhere…” He’s taking a gamble that this discursive approach will match the unstructured existence it describes, and he just about brings it off.
I’m not absolutely certain that Manu Chao’s “La Vida Tombola” (also from La Radiolina) is the best song ever written about a footballer, but I’d suggest that its only rival is Jorge Ben’s “Filho Maravilha”. Maybe that’s just another version of the endless Maradona v Pele debate: Argentina versus Brazil. One day I’ll have more to say about the great Jorge Ben. But here’s Manu Chao serenading the great albiceleste No 10 in person with the song he dedicated to him, in the poignant final scene from Emir Kusturica’s superb film titled Maradona, released in 2008. “If I were Maradona,” the lyric goes, “I’d live like him / A thousand fireworks, a thousand friends, and whatever happens at a thousand per cent / Life is a game of chance…” The subject of the song looks on, the hint of a smile on his lips giving no clue to the thoughts hidden behind his shades.
* The photograph of Manu Chao is taken from the cover of Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, his second solo album, released in 2001.