Manu Chao 101

In Europe and Latin America, Manu Chao is huge, but in the United States, he's still more of an underground sensation. In case you haven't heard of him yet, here's a quick rundown on the man and his music:

Born: Jose-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao on June 21, 1961, in Paris.

Lives: Between Barcelona, Paris and Brazil, but he spends most of his time traveling the world.

Roots: Manu's mom is a Basque engineer and his dad is a Galician journalist. His family ended up in Paris as exiles from the fascist Franco regime, where Manu grew up in immigrant suburbs.

His start in music: Manu fronted the multiculti Spanish anarchy-punk group Mano Negra in the 1980s, but after a hectic tour through Colombia by train, the group broke up and Manu went solo. That tour stopped off at villages all across Colombia, where the band played for everyone from farmers to guerillas to narcotraficantes. But the trip was so dangerous, that by the time they reached Bogota, almost the whole band had quit.

His solo breakthrough: After Mano Negra fell apart, Manu recorded the album Clandestino on a small portable studio while traveling, using mostly acoustic guitar and ambient sound. When he released the LP in 1998, it ended up selling more than 4 million copies worldwide.

What he's been up to for the past six years: Manu produced and wrote an album for blind Malian musicians Amadou and Mariam, and he's working on an album with their son, Sam. He's also helped out on Algerian singer Akli D's album, coproduced a book with illustrator Jacek Wozniak and collaborated on a film about soccer legend Diego Maradona.

Upcoming: He's working on a Brazilian album in Portuguese, and has put together an LP with patients from the Colifata psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires.

He's humilde and sencillito: Apparently, Manu doesn't own a cell phone and opts to travel by bicycle, subway and bus. He prefers playing impromptu concerts in the street or bars to living the rock-star life, and is well-known for rejecting ad companies' offers to use his songs in commercials. Once, when the Virgin label sent a photographer on the road with Manu for three weeks to shoot an album cover, record execs were shocked to find he was wearing the same shirt in every photo. The reason? He travelled with only one camisa, which he'd wash in the sink each night.

He's an adventurer: Manu has said he can't stand to stay in one place for more than two weeks. At one time, he traveled around South America by boat, playing concerts on a stage in the ship's hold. He loves Tijuana and he's traveled extensively in Brazil (and has an 8-year-old son who lives there, in Fortaleza.) But, he boycotted the United States for five years, staying away because he doesn't agree with George Bush's politics.

He's had rough times: After Mano Negra broke up, Manu fell into a depression and worried he'd lost his way. But one day, a cow saved his life: "I was in a bar in Rio and a cow walked in," he once told the Observer Music Magazine. "I looked into its eyes, and I saw such tranquilidad, serenity."

His thoughts on immigration: It's no surprise the man who once penned these lines would be in favor of immigrant rights: "Solo voy con mi pena/Sola va mi condena/Correr es mi destino/Por no llevar papel." Here's what he told the Chicago Tribune: "I grew up in a Paris neighborhood that was about 60 percent children of immigrants from Portugal, northern Africa, Armenia...Immigration(was)super-important to all of us. What galls me is the political hypocrisy around this issue. In Europe, the politicians all go on TV and talk about their commitment to battling illegal immigration. But they turn a blind eye -- as they must -- to all the sectors of the economy that would not exist without illegal immigrants. In Spain, certainly, there would be no agriculture; there would be no construction boom, without paperless immigrants."

He doesn't hate Americans -- but he is mad at our politics: "I always criticize the government, not the people," he told the Observer Music Magazine. "More and more, for people in South America and Africa, the U.S. is like the devil. There's a heavy cost for the way of life here in the rest of the world."

Is he a leader? "As a musician, I understand that I have access to the mike," he told The Washington Post. "That gives me a certain responsibility...I have to really take care not to be (portrayed as) an icon of rebellion because I think there is a big movement all around the world of people that really want to change this world...and I'm (just) part of that. (It's) important is that this movement keep horizontal and not vertical...(because) there's nothing more easy to corrupt than leaders."

How he stays calm amid all his travels and tours: "I try every day to find a little place, maybe a tree or a river. I learned how to auto-repair -- there's a lot of stress in my job," he told the Observer Music Magazine. "One (mantra) that works is that because I'm a shy guy, getting on stage is something almost violent. But I repeat to myself 'Shame Don't Kill' -- if it's a bad concert it's not like someone's gonna shoot me."

Does he get tempted by groupies? "No, I'm too romantic. Maybe that's stupid, or maybe that's my salvation," he told the Observer.

And finally, why we should be happy amid all the world's troubles: "I learned in South America and in Africa that people who have really big problems in the ghetto always keep a sense of humor and remain positive," he told Arts and Book Review magazine. "If not, you go down...For me, the more I think about the problems of the world, I feel I have to be positive. I wouldn't like to fall into cynicism or nihilism. That's not in my nature."

--Franziska Castillo

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