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Sitting on a dingy couch in a room backstage at Philly’s Electric Factory club (and saving my legs for the two-hour bouncefest that will soon ensue), I look through the door onto a hallway and catch an impatient and terribly nervous Manu Chao, who’s pacing, kicking, trotting, hopping and stretching like a soccer player or boxer psyching himself up before the main event. Now a few dates into his latest tour of North America with his radio-active Radio Bemba Sound System band, he’s only a holler away, but at the moment, it seems as though we might as well be oceans apart.
Although I’d interviewed him by phone a week earlier, the journalist in me wanted to see how the “in-the-flesh” Chao stacked up against the almost mythological "people’s Chao”—the world-traveling musician known for going into remote villages in Africa and Latin America to jam with the locals. The music lover in me worried that an up-close encounter with an uptight rock star persona might totally dispel the image of the altruistic music man.
The next time past the door, he sneaks a nervous wave. As he’s almost out of sight, he backpedals into the room, walks up to me— a complete unknown—extends his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Manu.”
To understand how the term “legendary” usually accompanies Chao’s name, it’s important to start at the very beginning. Born June 21, 1961 in Paris, José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao is the son of Spanish immigrants. His Galician father, Ramón Chao, a pianist and prominent journalist from Vilalba, Spain, moved to France on a scholarship. His mother, Felisa, an engineer from Bilbao in the Basque Country, fled to Paris during Francisco Franco’s fascist reign.
“My mother’s youth was very complicated due to the civil war in Spain,” Chao explained over the phone a week earlier while sitting on the steps of Detroit’s St. Andrews Hall before his show there. “My grandfather was condemned to death in Spain and had to flee the country.” This partially explains Chao’s general distrust for governments and his nonchalant stance towards “flags” and “borders,” not to mention his self-proclaimed status as a “citizen of the time.” With an Ernesto “Che” Guevara photo adorning his childhood home in the outskirts of Paris—first in the industrial town of Boulogne-Billancourt and then Pont de Sévres on the Seine River—Chao grew up with an affinity for all things Cuban. In 2006, he was the first French solo artist to perform in Cuba in nearly 40 years, though technically he had performed years earlier with his band Mano Negra. Around the time of Chao’s visit, the Cuban communist party newspaper, Granma, which also prints in French, reported that Alejo Carpentier—a famous Cuban novelist and subject of one Ramón Chao’s books—had sent the young Manu a pair of maracas when he was a child.
Cuba also gave Chao his first taste of music. “When I was four or five, the stuff my old man played around the house was the first music I remember loving,” he recalls fondly. “The Cuban singer Bola de Nieve was my revelation to music and we still listen and sing his songs to this day.”
“Once I grew up a little, I went into my neighborhood, which was very rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly, and took to the great adventure of the streets,” he continues. “It was impossible to play anything else or you’d get beat up. The big one for me was Chuck Berry—without a doubt. Later, punk arrived, despite the malandros [hoodlums] of the neighborhood not accepting it. Eventually, we brought in the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and the Ramones, and we started forming bands.”
Chao “left everything to go and make music” when he was about 17. He