And suddenly there he stood: Leprechaun in his regulation Sandinista green shirt and hat bent down low, 45 kilos soaking wet, materialized out of the air as if a Mayan alux (ah-louche) – sprite, guardian, mischievous agent of fortune. Backstage at Stubb's, amidst the bedlam of a sold-out spectacle that prompted ticketless fanatics to go over and under the venue's fences trying to catch a rare glimpse of Barcelona's musical holy man ("Live Shot," June 15, 2007), Manu Chao almost went unnoticed. Except by the fanatic tracking him almost 20 years ("King of Bongo," Aug. 11, 2006). Twenty minutes of huddled Spanish, punctuated repeatedly in English by Mano Negra's former gypsy punk, erased all other sound. Twenty minutes with the bronze alux.
Austin Chronicle: The title of your new single, "Rainin in Paradize," speaks to the current state of the planet. What's to be done?
Manu Chao: The CD [La Radiolina] starts on that question: "Now what? What are we going to do?" Where do we put our energies so that they're the most effective to change the state of things, which are critical? It's the first question.
AC: Is the whole album that question?
MC: The last phrase of the disc says it always pays off to arrive. But today we're in a historical era of the world. Things are deteriorating quickly. We've seen the collapse of communism, and I don't know if now we're seeing the collapse of capitalism. Hard to say, but that we're in a crisis, that much is clear. They talk about democracy, but what we're living in is a dictatorship, a dictatorship of money disguised as democracy. We're in that situation, and what are we going to do?
AC: Can this situation be changed?
MC: Honestly, I don't know. At a certain point, I think we arrived at an irreversible spot, which means for things to change, we'd have to go through a period of violent crisis. Violent, not as in literal violence but as in a strong change. The system now is biting its tail. We arrived at something unsustainable. There are now so many underprivileged people in the world, that [in English] tension is very strong.
La tension es muy, muy fuerte.
And well, all the more reason to be optimistic. In a situation like this, the first thing I do personally is to negate whatever pessimism, whatever cynicism. Those are easy stances to take. You have to have hope, have faith in changing things. [In English] It's time for action.
We have to do things. Obviously, we can do things. There are always solutions. Neither you nor I nor anybody here are going to be able to change the world. That has to be done together. The problem is the money. It's always a matter of economy. It's supercomplicated.
AC: The price of gas!
MC: Economy. [In English] All is business.
But the world can change. The whole world can change its internal dynamic. The whole world can change its neighborhood. We can all take action, and in that, we can affect change. Change the world: hard. By ourselves: impossible. Change the neighborhood: That's possible. That is.
To be effective, you have to feel like your actions make a difference. You have to start there. I really believe in that, local action, where you see the result of your actions, good or bad. Whether what you did had a beneficial effect or a detrimental one. Then you can think about it and consider what to do next.
What puts me on the right course and gives me passion is when those actions are done on a local level, whether it's my neighborhood or someone else's. Me, I have several neighborhoods, so my actions reverberate a little more. But to change neighborhoods – that can be done. Those worlds can change. That's a very important word for me: neighborhood. In my neighborhood, I have my neighbors.
AC: Is this Barcelona?
MC: Actually, yes. But I have my neighborhood in Barcelona, I have my neighborhood in Rio, and in that, there's my community. Not all your community thinks like you. And that's good. Every neighborhood I come across ends up being a microcosm of the world. And it's there change can be affected, looking at relationships, looking to understand. These small victories stack upon one another, one after the other after the other. Change comes from the people. Our leaders? [In English] Forget it. They're tied to money.
For a long time, I haven't been convinced that democracy has translated to these times. The politicians on the right and on the left, they no longer have the power of their beliefs. Impressions are more powerful than politics. We're voting for people who don't have much power to change things.
AC: You have children.
MC: I have one, 8 years old.
AC: Now that you have children, you have to have faith, right?
MC: Obviously, but that's the big problem today for so many people. To have children today is to immediately say: "What will become of him in 15 years? What will the world be like in 15 years?" It's impossible to know. This is a new problem for those of us in the First World. For people in the Third World? Ooof! [In English] It's nothing new.
Because in the Third World it's worse. You have a child, and you ask yourself, "What will become of him tomorrow?" Our preoccupation of the First World: "What will become of them in 10 years?" In the Third World, it's a more radical question: "What will become of my child tomorrow? Will I have enough to feed my child tomorrow?"
AC: Is it hard for you personally to exist in the First World?
MC: I was born in the First World. I was born in France, which is very different from here, but at the same time, it's very well kept. Many of us are born on the right side of the border for many things, in the sense that we've automatically gotten a passport to travel, for starters. A passport is indispensable. So to start, we have passports. We have the right to travel. Others are born into circumstances where travel is prohibited.
AC: [Whipping out Mano Negra's major label U.S. debut, 1989's Puta's Fever.] Until recently, with someone like Gogol Bordello, there wasn't anything quite like this – anywhere. It's so different.
MC: I don't know. I don't know how to analyze my music, but apparently it's unique. I remember back then, coming to the United States, how the market was supercompartmentalized. For the music business here in the United States, [pointing to the CD] this was very hard for people to understand. They didn't know where to put it [in English] in the shop. "Here? Here? Here?" The CD didn't have its ghetto. That was funny.
AC: There's a perception that you don't like the United States.
MC: I've never said that. Why wouldn't I like it? It's that it's a big world, and there are other parts that have captured my heart. With Mano Negra, I got the opportunity to travel, to leave France. Thanks to Mano Negra and the music, I got to know the United States and Latin America and Japan and lots of places. When Mano Negra ended, I found myself at home in South America, and that's where I went to live. I expect that at some point in my life, I could spend six months or a year in New York. ...
What I didn't like when I first came with Mano Negra was the music business in America. [In English] For sure we didn't like it.
Other things were fine, but the music [business], no way. Because when we came, they wanted to teach us how to work the music. They were like [in English]: "Guys, the job is like this. This is the way you do the job. If you don't do the job like this, you're not a professional." And we were professionals, and we didn't work like them at all.
And if we didn't do things their way, there was always war: problems, tensions with the stage managers and technicians. Since we didn't work with them, they said, "No." And us, with the way they work here, we said, "No!" Everything was very anarchistic.
We saw the way things work here, the hierarchy: musicians, tour manager, singer, manager. [In English] Like society. And no, we don't want to learn that way, thank you. Thank you. If you do rock & roll, it's not to act like everybody in society.
AC: Could you ever see a Mano Negra reunion happening?
MC: [Continued, unedited for length, online at austinchronicle.com/earache.]
Manu Chao taped Austin City Limits Tuesday; levels Stubb's tonight, Thursday, Sept. 25; and headlines day one of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Friday, Sept. 26, 8:30pm, AT&T stage.
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