French/Spanish world traveler and musical synthesist Manu Chao is a big star in his native Europe and particularly in South America, but he's remained something of a cult figure in the United States.
French/Spanish world traveler and musical synthesist Manu Chao is a big star in his native Europe and particularly in South America, but he's remained something of a cult figure in the United States. Listening to the records he has available stateside and then venturing out to a Chao live performance explains why this might be. As excellent and wide-ranging as "Clandestino" and its sequel "Proxima Estación: Esperanza" might have seemed, they're only a fractional glimpse at the seemingly limitless musical range and boundless energy of this unique talent.
Chao and his band Radio Bemba Sound System arrived at Red Rocks, outside Denver, on their first full-scale American tour for several years, and from the outset it seemed as if the group was primed to make up for lost time. Chao's chief strength is his ability to cherry-pick the best elements from musical traditions all over the world, and in terms of stage presence, he's definitely adopted a demonstrative, Latin American-influenced fixation on leaving no audience members attached to their seats. At least two of the musicians in Chao's five-piece backing band were employed predominantly for their skills at fist-pumping and otherwise inciting the near-capacity crowd to frenzy. The seemingly inexhaustible 45-year-old frontman did not stand still from his opening "Qué paso?" through multiple encores.
While on his records Chao tends to concentrate on one style per track, on stage he and his band take an invigorating kitchen-sink approach which sees familiar melodies and rhythms stopping on a dime to give way to furious, punk rock-inspired beatdowns. Those in turn are likely to morph into gentle Caribbean lilting at the most unexpected points. Chao's records are structured like pirate radio station broadcasts. On stage, he and Radio Bemba Sound System sound for all the world like a receiver being flipped from station to station, often right in the middle of songs. Chao sings mostly in Spanish but also uses English, French, Portugese and several African languages. Rather than making his songs inaccessible for monoglots, Chao breaks down borders, concentrating on recognizable words and phrases and repeated images to the degree that by the end of the night the listener feels like he can understand every word, even if that's not literally the case. Even so, a highlight on the night was his performance of the English-language "Mr. Bobby," a tribute to Bob Marley that allowed the enthusiastic crowd to sing along full-throatedly.
While it's hard to fault the band for pulling out all the stops on every song, performing almost every number in an extended version with punk forcebeats, false endings and extended group jams grew exhausting after a while. That's why it came as a great relief about two-thirds into the set when lead guitarist Madjid Fahem traded his electric instrument for a battered nylon-string. Fahem is certainly no slouch at the electric guitar, and his Dave Navarro-inspired pyrotechnics brought a lot to the thrashy elements of Radio Bemba's sound. But his extraordinary nylon playing elevated the show to an entirely different level. When Chao described Fahem later (in Spanish) as "the best in all the world," he could hardly be said to have been exaggerating.
The first set was only the beginning, as the crowd spurred Chao and band on to multiple encores, doubling the length of the overall performance. After the band spent their first hour barely pausing between songs, things got looser and more playful in the encores. Chao played a cheeky version of his biggest American hit, the goofy "Bongo Bong," and displayed surprising skill as a French rapper. The second encore finished with a long reggae jam where the band members left the stage one after another and the song kept growing leaner and leaner until finally Fahem completed it on his own as the stage lights went down.
An ever-growing group of intruders from the crowd joined the band on stage for the third encore, but in keeping with the feel-good spirit of the evening, none interfered with their playing, merely finding spots on the stage to dance and share in the groove. Still not quite done for the evening, Chao ceded the spotlight for one song to percussionist Manuel, who lustily bellowed out a song of his own center stage while his employer happily accompanied him. Finally, proceedings ended as they began, with Chao picking his guitar back up and leading the band through one more multi-part, genre-hopping exercise in pure musical adrenaline.
Hopefully American audiences will snatch up Chao's third album, La Radiolina, when it bows in September. It would be a shame if he and Radio Bemba Sound System didn't make this country a more frequent itinerary stop on their world travels. For now, if they're coming by your city, they're not to be missed.