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Manu Chao: Dancing to His Own Beat

Will larger commercial success contradict French singer Manu Chao’s anti-globalization sentiments?

May 9, 2002

Will larger commercial success contradict French singer Manu Chao's anti-globalization sentiments?

French singer Manu Chao is a glamorous opponent of globalization. In fact, Mr. Chao has emerged as the bard of the “anti-mondialisation” subculture.

Manu Chao, an avid world traveler, began his career as the lead singer in a band called Mano Negra. Among his favorite destinations is Latin America, where he has been feted by some of the region’s guerrilla groups.

These visits have inspired much of Mr. Chao’s music — and also raised the blood pressure of some U.S. conservatives.

Manu Chao’s songs often deal with the evils of oppression. His first CD, “Clandestino,” was released in 1998 and is sprinkled liberally with statements by Sub-Comandante Marcos — one of the leaders of Zapatista rebels who have fought against Mexico’s government. Other subjects for Mr. Chao’s songs include illegal immigration, drug trade and government subterfuge.

His first CD features a song about Tijuana, the Mexican border town which is a popular destination for California shoppers — as well as U.S. sailors looking for cheap thrills. Thus, Tijuana — which nicely rhymes with “marijuana” — is transformed into a potent symbol of U.S. exploitation of the developing world right on its doorstep.

Manu Chao’s second CD, “Next Station: Hope,” is a vital catalogue of global oppression — sung in many different languages. Along with his usual offerings in Spanish and Portuguese, there are reggae beats, a song performed in Arabic — and a lengthy passage recited in Russian.

Manu Chao is also one of the founders of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC). The French group was behind the protests at the Group of Seven Economic Summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001. It was also a potent force at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January-February 2002.

What is lost in such protests is that Manu Chao himself is, in a way, a product of globalization. Born in Paris to Spanish parents (who named him Oscar Tramor), Mr. Chao’s musical influences include English punk rock, as well as flamenco and Latin American music.

Little wonder then that Manu Chao also has global ambitions. He harbors ambitions to break into the mainstream music market in the United States, where his brand of global beat currently sells mainly to music connoisseurs and anti-globalization activists.

Ironically, any larger commercial success in the United States may end up risking his anti-globalization sentiments.