Review, Manu Chao, La Radiolina
Although largely unknown in the USA, Manu Chao is a major star in Europe and in Central and South America. Part of the problem is that Chao is too cosmopolitan for the traditionally insular American audience. He usually sings in English, French and Spanish – sometimes in the same song – and has been known to sing in Arabic, Portuguese, Italian and Galician as well. Those Americans who insist that everyone learn to speak English are unlikely to turn on to Chao’s music. Another part of the problem may be that Chao writes political songs (along with songs about love and the everyday life of ordinary people) and has a long history of sympathy and support for revolutionary groups and people’s movements that have resisted dictatorship and tyranny. Had he been writing in the later 1700s he would undoubtedly have been singing anti-British Empire songs in support of the American revolutionaries. However, he began singing in the later 1900s when many brutal dictatorial regimes throughout Central and South America were supported by the USA, and thus some of Chao’s music has been critical of the United States. This is unlikely to endear him to the people who respond with hostility, fear and alarm when they hear people speaking languages they don’t understand.
Chao first came to international prominence in the band Mano Negra. He has been more or less solo, often accompanied by a changing collective of musicians named Radio Bemba Sound System, since Mano Negra split up in 1995. “La Radiolina” is his first international studio release in six years.
“La Radiolina” (Italian for “the little radio”) contains a wide variety of music with a marked Latin American and Caribbean flavor. Like much of the music from these parts of the world, Chao’s songs often have a lilt and sway that is irresistable. “La Radiolina” is a very pleasant album that goes down easy and grows in enjoyment over time. A winning combination, that.
Chao’s writing style is likely to seem odd at first to new listeners. Throughout his career he has recycled his lyrics and melodies through different songs and permutations. That practice is evident on “La Radiolina” where several melodies appear again and again throughout the album. He also combines fully worked out songs with shorter tracks that sound more like the initial ideas for songs – a verse or two, or a verse and chorus – than they do fully realized pieces. The result is that the entire album sounds like the auditory equivalent of a mosaic that combines both large and small pieces and is held together by schemes of color and pattern that appear throughout the work. It’s an interesting way to present music.
Manu Chao seems much more interested in making music that speaks to the lives of people outside the United States than he does in breaking into the American music market or conforming to the dictates of the corporate music industry. As a result, he has not, and probably will not, receive wide exposure in the US. That’s a shame because his music is enjoyable, fresh and interesting.
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