The first thing you notice about Manu Chao’s discography is that his music takes influence from a huge variety of cultures. This has been with him since the beginning; his band, Mano Negra, formed while busking in the subway in Paris.
As he puts it, you need to play a wide variety of music there because of the sheer amount of different cultures represented by people who use the metro. I identify with this in particular, because, similarly, my music is influenced by many different cultures. Indeed Manu Chao and Mano Negra have been large influences in my finding this.
Chao’s seminal album, Clandestino, was released in 1998 and showcases this eclectic mix. The album starts with the title track, a gypsy-punk reggae song about an immigrant trying to find work; followed by Desaparecido, a more flamenco outing, then Bongo Bong and Je Ne T’aime Plus (which were bizarrely covered by Robbie Williams and Lily Allen) then Mentira, which has a more Folky or Radiohead vibe.
His most famous hit, ‘Me Gustas Tu’ is sung in Spanish and French, in a reggae style, using traditional Spanish folk instrumentation and contemporary music concrete – using a radio snippets of talking clocks across the Spanish speaking world.
His live performances with Radio Bemba Soundsystem augment this music, with more of a punk edge, especially when they play old Mano Negra hits, such as Mala Vida and live favourite Sidi H’Bibi; an arabic folk/punk number.
Despite the ease with which it could fall into pretentious and unlistenable, Manu Chao’s music manages to remain pleasant on the ears and very danceable too. Lyrically his songs are quite simple, so though they are largely not in English, you can still sing along with them, but that doesn’t make them banal. Most of his songs have a socio-political edge. Even in songs where that is not obvious, he makes it more plain live, such as in his live performance of La Primavera/Me Gustas Tu at Baionarena, where in an interlude, he calls George W Bush the biggest terrorist on the planet.
If there’s just one artist you’re going to discover this year; make it Manu Chao; few artists have music that transcend language and time in the way his does.