Clandestine Rhythms of Latin America

One of the world’s largest selling artists does not come from either Britain or North America. In fact, he rarely has sung in English and is almost a cult figure among people who are in to Latin inspired music. Manu Chao for long has kept a relatively low profile and has performed a small number of times in the U.S. Manu Chao’s popularity among people who speak either Spanish or French has been his ability to inter-weave the cultures and thoughts of Francophone countries and Spanish speaking countries.

Manu Chao himself has been associated with a number of other bands, apart from his solo sojourn. Now, Latin America has been a continent that was and is caught between democratic ambitions and socialist thought. The South American countries have seen juntas and revolutions as we see strikes and closures. In fact, revolutions are what South and Central America are made of. When FARC decides to ship cocaine to European nations through the sea route, the terrorist organization has to evade polices in different countries from Columbia to Brazil.

Manu Chao’s music represents a culture that is far removed from the pop culture of North America. However, from mainland Europe himself, his songs are laden with socialist and anti-capitalist ideas. The difference between Anglophone music and Manu Chao’s has been a striking relevance to social and political movements. Right from the songs ‘La Vida Tombola’, and ‘Welcome to Tijuana’ to ‘Clandestino’ the listener is introduced not only to the sounds of Spain and Latin American countries, but is also introduced to political thought and prevailing cultures in these countries.

The French language album he released a few years ago unveils a picture of immigration related problems in France and the issue of racial minorities. Unemployment, crime, drug trafficking and political unrest have been central to his music. A combination of Latin melody, alternative rock, reggae and even hip-hop, Manu Chao’s music is rich with the racial diversity seen in Central and South America, and to an extent, France and Spain.

A notable theme is that of marijuana, which is repeated several times in his albums. Clandestine dealings of drug lords and the equally corrupt and dangerous authorities making the life of Latin American people unbearable, perhaps forces many into seeking solace in marijuana. Manu Chao brings to light the dependence of this hallucinogenic amongst the people in Spanish speaking countries. Sometimes, marijuana is seen as an alternative to the more dangerous but easily available cocaine. The cocaine path leads one from Columbia to the Central American nations and into Mexico, before finally reaching the United States and Canada. Alternatively, this path sometimes is traced to Brazil from where the white powder reaches Europe.

Violence, kidnappings, robberies, murders, gang wars, beheadings are an everyday affair in Mexico Columbia and their neighbours. When Manu Chao says ‘Welcome to Tijuana, Tequila, Sexo, Marijuana’, it is easy to understand Tijuana and Mexico as a place for merry and gay abandon. Nevertheless, it is also a place from where cocaine is transported, leading to vicious gang-wars. Manu Chao’s music is similar to the realism often seen in Latin American writers and filmmakers. Though a European, his music and lyrics magically transport the listener to the violent but colourful Latin American society.


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  • madkat

    Very interesting…maybe its the history and culture which gives birth to magical realism…