“I talk about what I see, and I’m so sorry that 99% of what I see is no good.” Manu Chao

If you're in the mood for happy music, go to my last post, but if your inclination is toward darkness, stay here.

When I started medical marijuana, I switched overnight from talk radio all day long to music radio all day long. I started with modern American pop stations because I was looking for musicians to complement my collection of artists from the sixties and seventies. Whenever a commercial came on, I would flip to another station trying to find even one artist I liked, but I never did, and it wasn’t because I was stuck in the past. Indeed, I was screaming to be carried into the 21st century music scene, but not just because I live in the 21st century. Since I liked a Colombian singer whom Peggy enjoys named Shakira, I started getting library CDs by other Latin performers, and that’s when I stumbled upon Manu.

Music is crucial to my altered vision of the world, and so I had to find at least one new artist for this new day, an artist in whom I recognized brilliance, integrity, passion, and benevolence. I didn’t want an artist who would take me out of this world, but an artist who would put me more deeply into it than the news ever had. Manu is that artist. Listening to too much news hadn’t opened my heart; it had overwhelmed it under a cloak of objectivity, and I had closed myself off in defense.

You can find Youtube footage of Manu Chao performing concerts at packed soccer stadiums in dozens of countries on several continents, but if you’re an American, you’ve probably never heard of him. Such is our isolation. The song at the top was the first I heard by him. The opening lines (“Welcome to Tijuana. 
Tekila, sexo y marihuana”) made me think that the song was either a tribute to or a spoof about a major Mexican/American border city, and I smiled. Then, Manu’s voice—and other sounds and voices—began to come in one by one with incredible sadness. So it was that my first lesson about Manu Chao was that his music never gives me what I expect. I can’t even listen to two-thirds of a song by him, and guess where he’s going with the last third.

Manu grew up in Paris, the son of Spaniards who fled Franco. He’s a leftist who sings in many languages but mostly in Spanish. A common theme in his music is wealthy countries and individuals that live on the backs of the poor. Yet, to one like myself who has to look up the translations, his music initially sounds almost upbeat, and this combination of sad words and happy music makes the sadness more profound. I hear in his music the irony between how we all, to some degree, appear on the surface versus the heartbreak that we feel within. I’m also attracted to the layering of voices and instruments and to the changes of direction that he often takes within the course of a single song. So far as I know, there’s no name for his style of music.

Below is the same song performed before a live audience in France. Part of his appeal as a live musician lies in his ability to turn the mood of tens of thousands of people back and forth instantly. This--along with seeing him on stage--makes the video phenomenal, although I find the actual music less pleasing than the studio version.