The Spanish/French music artist Manu Chao was born on June 21, 1961, in Paris, France as José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao. Before his international success during 1988 to 1995 with the Mano Negra band, he was well-known as a punk/reggae/ska/rock artist in the alternative music scene in Paris. His early career was heavily influenced by the U.K. rock scene at the time, particularly The Jam, The Clash, and Dr. Feelgood. In the Parisian music scene, Manu Chao was a well-known member of bands such as Los Carayos and Hot Pants.
As a singer of Spanish (Basque, Galician) and French origin, he has become one of the world’s largest selling music artists although he is not that well-known in English-speaking countries. Many of his lyrics include social and political issues, but they are also about love, music, and world lifestyles. Some of his most loved songs are ‘Bongo Bong’, ‘Me Gustas Tu’, ‘Mr. Bobby’, ‘Clandestino’, and ‘Je Ne’taime Plus’. Manu Chao sings in French, Galician, Spanish, Arabic, English, Portuguese, Wolof, and Italian, sometimes mixing them up his songs.
During the mid-80s he formed the Spanish and English rockabilly group “Hot Pants” with other musicians and in 1984 they released their demo with the title “Mala Vida” which got lots of critical praise locally but gained little attention otherwise. By the time the alternative music scene in Paris had taken off in 1986, the group had released their first album. Together with Antoine Chao his brother and friends like Alain (of Les Wampas fame), the band Los Carayos was formed as a side-project to incorporate their sound with the punk and rockabilly styles of Hot Pants. Los Carayos released 3 albums in the first 2 years, but remained a side-project of the artists for eight years, with a final album released in 1994.
In 1987 the band Mano Negra was formed by Manu Chao, his brother Antoine, and Santiago Casariego, their cousin. Mano Negra first became successful in France with the hit single “Mala Vida”, followed by Mexico and Central and South America where they toured. The members of Mano Negra split up in 1995 and the band was dissolved.
The music of Manu Chao has many different influences including Rock, Spanish-American Salsa, French Chanson, Skaand Algerian Rai, and Reggae. He obtained these influences from his Iberian roots, French immigrants, and Latin America where he traveled after the disbanding of Mano Negra. His influence on Rock en Español or Latin Rock was crucial for the development and rise of the new Latin bands striving to match his eclectic style, as well as for his personal knowledge of the united culture of Latin America.
The music created by Manu Chao does not follow a logical textual narrative; rather its eclectic construction invokes a deeper understanding of the subject than any literal form can achieve. His songs are about political problems such as immigration, justice, and social injustice worldwide with a strong leftist critique of the exploitation of economic globalization. He is sometimes openly critical of governments, for example, the Bush administration in the United States. He has many followers among the anti-globalization movements and the European Left.
After his tours and travels in Latin America, his lyrics were written in Spanish more often than they were in the Mano Negra lyrics. He also incorporates chords or lyrics from popular songs like ‘El Preso’ or ‘La Verdolaga’.
Manu Chao sings songs about the marginalized people of the streets and the outer provinces. He sings with and for the uncounted billions, the forgotten, and the underclasses. And in so doing he uses his voice and lyrics to speak about the fragility of humankind. His music can be seen as a bridge in the exploration of common ground and the means of mutual understanding available to everyone, expanding the idea that beyond the superfluous differences in our cultural identities we are all the same.