The King of Bongo Holds Court
Oct 31 2013
As he pumps up the jam in Delhi, Mumbai and Jodhpur, India finally gets to see the revolutionary singer, Manu Chao, live and ticking
The irony of the situation — that Blue Frog, the Delhi nightclub that spells bourgeoisie in big fat capital letters, should host a man who would rather take off on his motorbike in South America, a la Che Guevara, than promote his album — registers, but for a fleeting second. The moment passes just as Chao and his band, La Ventura, chase down the flamenco interplay, catch it midway and crank up tempo, without missing a beat. There’s no escaping the pulsating energy, and you begin pogoing in earnest, pushing such thoughts aside.
That Manu Chao is god to some is apparent. Sergio Dinarte, a musician himself, who moved from El Salvador to India a couple of years ago, and who now plays for the Delhi-based nine-piece Afro-Cuban jazz band, Pez Rodriguez, refuses to leave his spot in the front row, long after the band bows to the audience — during the course of the evening the band bids adieu three times, only to come back, giving into the crowd demand. Spent and dazed, Dinarte stands his ground until his friends drag him out to point to the musicians circulating in the courtyard.
Tickets to the shows — apart from playing at Delhi, Chao and his band had performed at Blue Frog Mumbai and at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur — were sold out long ago, and people were trying desperately to get hold of one in every online forum possible. Blue Frog Delhi had not seen a crowd like this in a long while, insiders insist.
Yet, it is also obvious that Chao to some is an enigma. Although he plugs in an English song or two, he primarily sings in Spanish and French. His fan base, not surprisingly, is concentrated in the Spanish-speaking world and Europe. Chao’s songs are informed by the plight of people that he encountered on his backpacking trips across South America and Africa and the song that propelled him to fame is Clandestino (illegal immigrant), released in 1998. And Chao, who goes with the mood and not necessarily the line-up of his hit songs while performing did breeze through Clandestino — the echoing crowd standing testimony to the fact that he had struck the right chord with the masses.
Before Clandestino, Chao was part of Mano Negra, a cult world music band that allegedly called itself after an anarchist group in Spain in the late 19th century. It is also widely held that had Mano Negra promoted itself right, it could have easily broken into mainstream music scene. But instead, the band travelled to South America in search of life-changing experiences. When difference of opinions led to the band’s split, Chao continued to travel to the remote corners of the world, cobbling together a hotchpotch of genres he picked up en route busking with local musicians, giving shape to the sound that he’s identified with today.
Chao’s music ideology is simple. “Music could bring about a change, yes. But it should also entertain,” he tells you, between hugging fans and posing for pictures. So he sheaths his edgy, left-leaning lyrics in peppy beats and infectious, almost ridiculous, choruses. At one level, if you let the bouncy reggae rhythm alone seduce you, Welcome to Tijuana, could be a happy-go-lucky song about Tijuana. But to those who are aware of the plight of this city in Mexico, the gateway to the United States, know that the song alludes to the rampant drug and human trafficking taking place there.
Chao anchors his foot-tapping beats with thought-provoking lyrics. In Rainin’ in Paradize, he introduces you to Congo’s Mibali, and in Rumba de Barcelona, he talks about Bibi Malena and Abdu Lula, driving home the point that the downtrodden exist everywhere.
It is true that music has no barriers. At Blue Frog Delhi, the moment Chao and his band start playing —the band in their customary style, storms the stage, and takes over from the word go and keeps at it relentlessly — he finds himself a new set of fans. Parvati Thampi, who had come because one of her Spanish friends insisted, is awestruck at the end of it. “Loved every minute,” she keeps repeating to the guitarist Madjid Fahem and drummer Phillipe Teboul later.
If you hang around Chao for a bit, you realise he does practice what he preaches. The performer in him is obviously thrilled by the adulation of his fans. He may grimace at the suggestion, but he smiles sportingly into the cameras. But then again, when it becomes obvious that social-media addicts are going for overkill, he puts his foot down. The VIP crowd that paid premium for a closer interaction with the star waits upstairs, but Chao brushes aside the summons to go up and circulates in the courtyard. And to the queuing journalists, he shrugs unconcernedly, “I have no phone, no email. I don’t believe in those things. If you want to talk to me, talk to me here and now.”
As you wait to sneak in a question “here and now”, snatching moments between one delighted fan and the other, you wish he had stayed a bit longer in India. You can almost hear that Indian-influenced tune that he could have tweaked out of our diverse musical heritage.