Lost in a century

Manu Chao's catchy, multilingual pop tunes became the soundtrack to the anti-globalisation movement.

Manu Chao has a little dancing devil embroidered on his hat, and I can't help noticing it looks a lot like its owner. He is a small, ferocious ball of energy, like a firework that could shoot off in any direction at any moment. He talks fast, his eyes flicking from one side to the other. Every so often, he smokes a strong cigarette in a few long drags. At first, I put his edgy manner down to nerves - he doesn't like interviews - but it's not just that. Both as a person and as an artist, he is an inveterate fidgeter, moving hyperactively between cities, continents and languages, never staying still long enough to put down roots.

Chao is best known for his first solo album, Clandestino, which was released in 1998 and became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, selling five million copies worldwide. Chirpy, reggae-influenced melodies such as "Bongo Bong" and "Welcome to Tijuana" have remained compulsory listening in backpacker hostels from Nepal to Nairobi. With its gently anti-Establishment lyrics in Spanish, French, Portuguese and English, Clandestino was the perfect soundtrack for a generation that was both globetrotting and increasingly anxious about the consequences of globalisation. "I think a great record is one that knows how to travel by itself," he says in the heavily accented English that will be familiar to anyone who has heard his singing voice. "Clandestino for sure was one of those records."

The English-speaking world, ill-accustomed to foreign-language music, has been slow to latch on to Chao, even though he has gathered a cult following of students, backpackers and world music lovers. In the rest of Europe and Latin America, however, he is very famous indeed. His first studio album in six years, La Radiolina, released in early September, went straight to the top of the charts across mainland Europe. His record company hopes that it will prove a breakthrough hit both here and in the United States, where he toured from April to June this year.

Chao's significance has been more than musical: he also became one of the most prominent figures in what had, by the late 1990s, become known as the anti-globalisation movement. He announced that he was donating cuts of his royalties to the Zapatistas, the indigenous people's movement led by Subcomandante Marcos in Mexico, and cemented his status as a countercultural icon in July 2001 when he played a concert for anti-G8 demonstrators in Genoa and donated a large part of the profits to the protest movement. There were ugly scenes later when some of the movement's more radical elements rioted, and others were brutally maltreated by the Italian police.

These days, though he continues to post messages from the Zapatistas on his website, Chao is more circumspect about his political affiliations. "I was very uncomfortable with this persona, being the face of the anti-globalisation movement," he says. "That was really the media. I never wanted to be that - it's dangerous for me, and it's dangerous for the movement, because there is nothing more easy to corrupt or manipulate than a leader." Would he do something like Genoa again? He pauses. "I think, er . . . everywhere these guys are gonna meet, we're gonna be around. Of course I will do these things, but as a citizen [rather than as a musician]." So, no more standing up at the front. "I never stood at the front. The media put me there."

Now, he says, he will only get involved in projects at a local level, "Because when you act, you immediately see the result. When you act very big you never know - it is very complicated to analyse whether your action was good or not." I had heard that he turned down an invitation to appear publicly with the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Chao bridles at the suggestion. "I played two times in Venezuela last year, in the neighbourhoods. And they said, 'If you want, Chávez would like to meet you.' I said, 'I'm sorry, we are doing our work in the neighbourhoods.' And the answer from the government was, 'You're in the right place.'"

None of this means that Chao's world-view has softened - on the contrary, La Radiolina is angrier than ever. It does him no favours. The appeal of Clandestino and, to a lesser extent, of his second album, Proxima Estación: Esperanza, lay in the combination of upbeat pop tunes with downbeat tales from the sharp end of global capitalism. Without sloganeering, Chao simply and powerfully captured the dislocated, melancholy voice of an illegal immigrant in songs such as "Desaparecido": "I carry pain in my body/that stops me from breathing/I carry a sentence in my body/that keeps me moving on."

In contrast, La Radiolina sounds urgent and hectoring, laden with rock guitars, wailing sirens and lyrics that border dangerously on the facile: "In Baghdad/it's no democracy/just because it's a US country/In Fallujah too much calamity/This world go crazy, it's a fatality." In its lighter moments ("Me Llaman Calle" and "Otro Mundo"), La Radiolina recalls the best of Manu Chao, but too often it feels like being trapped next to a member of the Socialist Workers Party at closing time in the student bar.

The feeling is not entirely dispelled by an hour in conversation with Chao; he has a tendency to make apocalyptic pronouncements, such as: "If we stay like this: chaos. End of civilisation. I mean what I'm saying. It's a matter of time" and "Capitalism is barbarity, it's the law of the jungle in money". Maybe so, but I find myself wondering what happened to the sensitive, poetic person I heard on his early albums.

It seems ironic that Chao has become increasingly disillusioned with the world even as his own fortunes have improved so drastically. When he wrote Clandestino, he says, he was "totally lost. That's why 'Perdido en el siglo' ['lost in a century'] was the motto of the CD . . . I had no home, no regular place to live." Following the break-up of his first (and very successful) band, Mano Negra, he took off to travel the world with just a backpack and the portable tape machine on which he recorded the sounds that would make his name. "I was out of the music industry. I was convinced that no one would buy this record, that it would be my last one."

Perhaps that is one of the reasons the album worked so well: it captured a moment when the artist's personal experience - "perdido en el siglo" - coincided fortuitously with the spirit of the times in which he found himself. It is more dif ficult to be a spokesman for the dispossessed when you are a multimillion-selling artist with the music industry at your feet. Chao is too intelligent and self-aware for this difficulty to have escaped him; and in fact, I get the feeling that he would almost be relieved if it all went wrong tomorrow. "If this all goes bad, it would be no problem - I can do other things in my life. I've been waiting for that," he says. "I want to be a doctor one day, a chiropractor. I want to study, but I can't do it because I'm doing music, which is my passion. For me [getting out of music] is not something negative - it's more like it's going to be something very positive."

In the meantime, he continues to work at a frenetic pace. He is pursuing a project with patients at a psychiatric hospital in Argentina and producing an album in Mali for a band called Smod (fronted by Sam, son of the married duo Amadou and Mariam, whose 2004 album Dimanche à Bamako Chao also produced). Based in Barcelona, he is still a "drug addict of travelling", unable to stay in one place for longer than three weeks. "When I'm not travelling I go mad. Routine is something I have always avoided in my life. Maybe I'm scared of it. Maybe I need a psychiatrist . . . One day, I hope I will accept routine. Maybe that would be my little door to happiness. But I cannot. There are too many things to do."

He has tried to settle down, he says - he has an eight-year-old son who lives with his mother in Brazil. "I could go to a little beach with my son and eat fish and do nothing, and live in paradise for my whole life. I could do that now. I tried, but it gave me a bad conscience . . . How can you be happy when there are so many people starving? I would have to have a lobotomy or cut my heart out. I cannot be happy in this world."

Phew. I don't know which of us is more relieved when the interview is over. Chao instantly looks more relaxed, and to my great delight invites me to his favourite bar in Barcelona, the Mariatchi, in the city's Gothic district. It's a simple local place with a bohemian atmosphere and a mixed clientele, all of whom greet Chao without much ceremony. He tells me he rarely gets any hassle in this area because everyone knows him personally. As he chats to the motley collection of African buskers, students and artists, showing the kind of genuine, warm enthusiasm you do not expect from a global rock star, I suddenly get a glimpse of the Manu Chao I had hoped to meet.

He pours me a shot of sweet honey liqueur and tells me proudly that it was produced from his own hives - he has started keeping bees, but doesn't have much time to look after them because he spends so much time out of the country. By the time I board the plane back to London I have a pleasantly fuzzy head and a sincere desire to see Manu Chao settle down on his sunny beach with his son, his fish and his bees, and leave the global struggle to somebody else.

"La Radiolina" is out now on Because. Manu Chao's UK tour kicks off with three dates at the Brixton Academy, London SW9, from 2 October. More information: www.manuchao.net

Manu Chao: the CV

1961 José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao is born in Paris to exiled Spanish parents. His father, Ramón, is a journalist and his mother, Felisa, an engineer.

1984 Chao's Clash-influenced first band, Hot Pants, release their first demo. On it is "Mala Vida", a hit single for his next group.

1988 Mano Negra, formed a year earlier by Chao, his brother Antoine and cousin Santiago Casariego, release their debut album, Patchanka. They attract a dedicated following in Spain and Latin America.

1992 Mano Negra set off on a madcap six-week tour of war-torn Colombia, during which they are forced to negotiate with armed guerrillas. They start to disband shortly afterwards.

1995 Sets off for years backpacking around the world. Adventures include briefly converting to Islam to marry in Dakar, Senegal.

1998 Clandestino, his first solo album, appears. It gradually becomes an international hit.

2001 Appears on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. Chao's second album, Proxima Estación: Esperanza, is named one of the ten best albums of the year by Rolling Stone.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies