Self-described "musical globalista" Manu Chao wears his title well, singing in French, Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, Arabic, English and Wolof (a Sub-Saharan language) and mashing together a colourful assortment of French chanson, Algerian raï, rock, punk, ska and reggae, to name a few. While taking inspiration from every corner of the globe, the nomadic artist also revisits his own material, dropping rhythms from one album into another and spinning old songs into new ones. He has garnered a loyal following in Latin America and Europe for his playful, catchy sound spiked with left-leaning lyrics.
Pants on fire
Born in Paris to Spanish parents (his father, a respected writer, hails from Galicia, his mother from Bilbao), Manu Chao grew up in a bilingual household. He also learned some English by listening to American rock ‘n roll and British punk bands during the 1970s. After his first major group, Les Hot Pants, dissolved, the musician formed La Mano Negra in 1986 with his brother (trumpeter Antoine) and his cousin (drummer Santi Casariego).
The band blended rap, rock, flamenco and raï to create a Spanish version of dancehall music called patchanka - also the title of the combo's 1988 debut album. La Mano Negra's overwhelming success in France led to a recording contract with Virgin the following year.
In 1989, with the release of Puta's Fever, the group started to gain international exposure. By including several English language tracks and a more rock-oriented sound on its third album, King of Bongo, the group further broadened its appeal.
In 1992, La Mano Negra headed to South America on its "Cargo Tour," travelling to several port cities on a ship which also served as a stage. Returning to the continent the following year, the band journeyed through Colombia on a retired train, holding free concerts along the way.
In 1994, La Mano Negra released Casa Babylon, a wild mash-up of multiple languages and musical styles interspliced with a series of radio and television samples that added a political counterpoint to the album's laid back Latin flavour.
Break up, breakthrough
Manu Chao decided to move La Mano Negra to Spain in 1995. However, the band dissolved shortly after and he formed his new ensemble, Radio Bemba Sound System, that same year. Looking to incorporate more of a street vibe into his music, Chao traveled around Central and South America before releasing his first solo effort, Clandestino, in 1998. The recording made a slow yet steady climb up the charts in France, eventually selling more than 2.5 million copies.
His 2001 follow-up, Próxima Estación: Esperanza, used Caribbean beats as a musical backdrop for Chao's socially conscious message. Hailed as one of the best albums of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, the recording was an instant hit, generating a tour and subsequent live album. That year, the world music pioneer made his first visit to the Festival.
Chao added producer to his list of credits in 2005 with Dimanche à Bamako, the well-received album by Malian duo Amadou & Mariam. That same year, he released Sibérie m'était contée, his first all-French recording, which came with a book of lyrics and illustrations by Polish artist Jacek Wozniak.
In 2007, the musician broke onto the North American market with his La Radiolina. Independent music website Pitchfork described Chao as "the ringmaster of a multicultural, cross-generational, genre-busting circus that can whip tens of thousands of people into a frenzy even if they don't speak the same language."
Chao recreated a similar scene when he returned to the Festival in 2007, taking his colourful sound collage outside to the Jean Drapeau Park for a rare performance.