If Che Guevara is a symbol of a rebellious life all about independence, cross cultural learning and political revolution, Manu Chao is that life’s soundtrack. Spanish-born/French-bred Manu Chao emerged in the French alternative scene with the explosive Afro-Latino-rock band Mano Negra. Heavily invested in music that belonged to people in the streets, Chao went solo in 1995 and released his first solo album Clandestino in 1998, recording it with only a tiny portable studio while he roamed the streets of Latin America. He’s gone on to record five full-length albums, including the Latin Grammy award-winning La Radiolina. He sings in more than seven languages, enacting unlikely cross-genre marriages from traditions as diverse as punk, rock, French chanson, Iberoamerican salsa, reggae, ska, and Algerian raï. His newest work, Baionarena, is a 33-track live album recorded in Bayonne, France. PW caught up with Manu Chao before he left Barcelona for his American tour.
Its been a while since you’ve visited us in the United States. Are you excited for the American tour?
Last year, we toured the West Coast, so of course we need to come and visit the East Coast now. It was way too much overdue. It’s been a long time without playing in the area, so there are lots of friends around and good remembering to be had ... And [my touring band] has been traveling together for such a long time now, it’s kind of a family affair. The relations between us [band members] are really strong. Traveling, playing around, it’s a big pleasure for all of us to be together ... And it’s a great opportunity to be able to come back now to Philadelphia. It means a lot to come back, for sure.
Your new album was recorded live. Does that change its nature or make it different from your other records?
We recorded it at the end of my European tour [in 2008].There is something different about it, recording live. The most important thing is the energy. But for the show [in Philadelphia] we’ll play songs from all my albums, some from the times of Mano Negra, and some very new songs that have never been released in the U.S.
What inspirations or influences were you working with in writing these new songs?
The inspirations are very diversified. I spent lots of time in South America and Brazil over the last two or three years, so there are lots of new songs in Portuguese. I have also been living in Barcelona which has influenced me a lot. And Rumba music! But I take inspiration from lots of different countries. My new sound is a mix between hardcore reggae and rock ’n’ roll.
What other projects do you have on your horizon?
I’ve been doing recordings with a Catholic [psychiatric] hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, La Colifata. We did an album together, Viva La Colifata, which is available for free download. I got to be with so many great people there, I’m sure we will do more recordings.
What music do you listen to while you’re on tour?
I always go back to the roots, maybe from Africa, maybe from Europe, maybe from South America ... I take my lessons from the roots and traditional music. I like music that doesn’t sound so produced. I like to listen to something from the old times to put my attention on something completely different from touring.
Manu Chao performs Fri., Sept. 2, 8pm. $35. Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing, Columbus Blvd. and Spring Garden St. 215.629.3200. livenation.com
PW's Music Issue 2014