Pop went the protest singer – the strange rise of Manu Chao
Manu Chao is the superstar you’ve probably never heard of. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Back in 2002, Irish promoters MCD booked Chao for a Dublin show and put him in Whelan’s. The gig sold out in minutes so the puzzled promoters moved the show to the larger capacity Ambassador. That also sold out rapidly. Within a few months, Chao was playing the Point (now the O2) and comfortably selling that out too.
How Chao became a most unlikely global superstar makes for a colourful tale and one which Peter Culshaw tells well in Clandestino, his new biography of the Paris-born singer with Galician and Basque Country family lines. Any story that features a band playing shows on trains around Colombia or on cargo ships sailing up and down South America is always going to be colourful.
Those two escapades starred Mano Negra, Chao’s old band, a mix of strong personalities, great energy and radical ideas. After the band fell apart in the middle of that Colombian tour, Chao bummed around the world looking for something –
anything – to replace the band. What came out of this was
Clandestino, his first solo album, which became word-of-mouth success thanks to the backpacking and international travelling scenes. His heady mix of punk, reggae, Latin and ska aligned with rabble-rousing spirit, pop magnetism and right-on protest songs, applied to a post-globalisation world, had found an audience.
Clandestino is a great read because Culshaw is objective enough to question Chao’s motives as well as laud his music. The best parts of the story are how Chao ended up as a pop star involved in protests and activism but not despised by his fans for doing so. As tales of unlikely global stars go, this is well worth your time.
Manu Chao: an unlikely global superstar