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Nobody’s Hero: Notes from the life of an unassuming troubadour

Manu Chao, singer-songwriter of European band Manu Chao La Ventura, is also a firebrand activist with an opinion on everything, from politics to drug abuse. But he has no illusions about the potential of music to change the world, writes Avantika Mehta

Avantika Mehta  2nd Nov 2013

Manu Chao | Photo: Asif Khan

itting comfortably on a white cloth covered chair by the side of a winding Hauz Khas village alley, Manu Chao shows no sign of impatience. He's been waiting twenty minutes as I am unpardonably late for our meeting, and his manager informs me that he is tired. As if to excuse myself, I blurt out, "Great gig last night." Smiling he replies, "Yes, it was a terrific audience."

Had I not watched him during sound check the previous day, I wouldn't be able to tell that the man is a perfectionist. But as Leon, Blue Frog's sound engineer confirmed, "The band and Manu were very specific about how their sound should be. They knew exactly what they wanted and didn't stop till it was perfect."

So we settle down on chairs that have been set out for a wedding, the neighbourhood kids playing and shouting all around us. Manu seems impervious to the noise, or maybe it's familiar enough to not bother him. His neighbourhood, once an industrial zone that housed a car factory, was empty while he was growing up. "We had the whole downtown to ourselves. We had open houses, we could go anywhere we wanted — a lot of crazy people came to live there."

Amidst this atmosphere of freedom afforded only to the forgotten, Chao began making music. The older guys in the gang were loyal to old-school rock, he recalls. "If you played something else, they'd smash you." He started off playing the bass, and still loves it. He laughs about it now but his start as a singer was coerced. "These guys needed a singer. 'Sing or we smash you,' they told me, so I sang."

It was in Paris that he heard his first punk band — Stiff Little Fingers — and the energetic music had him hooked. "After that, we started risking our lives to bring punk records into the neighbourhood, and little by little everything began to change." As more people moved in, musical tastes diverged. Chao's gang liked rock and punk, while the North Africans living there enjoyed funk. He grins from ear to ear as he tells me, "The only thing we could all agree on was James Brown."

During what he calls the bad times of his youth, Chao ran with a gang that sold pot. Then the bigger players brought in a white powder which was becoming a popular drug in Europe at the time — heroin. "That day changed my life. This big guy came to us — there were four of us, always together — and he tells us 'now you sell this, that's the trendy thing, forget marijuana.' And it was instinct; I knew it was wrong. Two of us say 'No' and two of us say 'Yes.' Two of us are dead now."

Chao is saddened that over the last five years, heroin use is on the rise in Barcelona. He sees drugs and politics as intrinsically linked and believes (correctly) that this increased flow of heroin is because of the Afghan war. Everywhere he travels, Chao sees a distinction in what people want and what politicians provide.

He talks about the dangers of heroin with passion that only comes from seeing its effects first-hand. "My generation, heroin was massive — half of my neighbourhood is dead. A lot of time I've spent trying to help people out of heroin." Chao is saddened that over the last five years, heroin use is on the rise in Barcelona. He sees drugs and politics as intrinsically linked and believes (correctly) that this increased flow of heroin is because of the Afghan war. Everywhere he travels, Chao sees a distinction in what people want and what politicians provide. "People lost faith in politicians long ago." When I ask him about his 2007 Coachella concert where he called out US President George Bush as 'the worlds' greatest terrorist', he responds emphatically: "He is! I'm not lying".

Despite being outspoken about what he sees as unjust, or perhaps because of it — it has been said that behind every cynic, there is a disappointed idealist — Chao is unconvinced that music or musicians will have a big hand in changing the world. Unlike Bob Marley, who he is often compared to and counts among his biggest influences, Chao casually admits, "Everyone has some specialty that they can share with others. I'm a musician, it's not very useful for my neighbourhood. But, you know, I can play so I play in weddings, the bars, the jails, wherever."

n Barcelona, it is not unusual to find Chao busking on the streets or playing acoustic at bars for free — "It's healthy." It helps him try out new songs, and he believes acoustic is important to the spirit of the musician. "The game is to try and find bars where nobody knows us. The youth know us, so we have to find bars with old guys who don't. We have to prove that we can play for these old guys. This way it is real."

This emphasis on the nitty-gritties of life is a big part of Chao — he doesn't believe in large global movements. "When I was a teenager, I used to think we could change the world. Now I say change the world, no. But I help change some neighbourhoods. To try and change the world becomes too complicated. Act local so you can see the results of your actions."

Still, in 2009, he spoke out against the Mexican government's occupation of San Salvador Atenco. Despite getting in trouble with the government — Mexican law prohibits foreigners from commenting on local affairs — his words generated rhetoric and resulted in the release of Atenco's incarcerated men. "It was a special victory, though I don't know how much I had to do with it."

As we're winding down, he poses a question to himself and answers it too — what're his regrets? "I cannot be happy because you cannot be happy alone, and you cannot be happy unless people around you are also more or less happy. Even in paradise you have two options — either you stay there alone or you go back to hell where your friends are and tell them about paradise. Alone, you cannot enjoy even paradise."

A lot of his music is shared online rather than through official record sales. Unlike most musicians, he shrugs it off, "You have to live with your time and now it's like that." Neither has Chao ever been a prolific musician — his last album, Baionarena, was released in 2009. "I got a lot of work recorded but releasing it will only bring me problems." Looking at me pointedly he says, "If I release a CD, the press will want to talk to me — right now they don't need me, I don't need them and I can do my thing."

Listening to Manu Chao brings to mind a song by the Stiff Little Fingers and it plays in my head as I walk away. "I don't wanna be nobody's star/ Don't wanna be nobody's hero/ Get up, get out, be what you are."


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