There are some striking similarities between the self-styled king of French raggasalsa Bruno "Sergent" Garcia and Manu Chao. For starters both are of a similar age (in their forties, although Garcia is a few years younger at 42), formed hugely popular punk bands (Ludwig Von 88 and Mano Negra respectively), were brought up in Paris, had Spanish parents (in Garcia's case his father) and went on to make solo careers out of mixing Latin music and reggae with a healthy sprinkling of socially aware punk prose.
Garcia's Spanish father, who would often play Latin soul and jazz music, ignited his fascination with Latin music. "When I was 18 I went to Barcelona for two years, and when I returned to Paris I wanted to stay in touch with the Latin community so I'd listen to a programme called Salsa Manila, which ran for three hours every Sunday. The presenters would explain everything about Latin music and it really inspired me. I started to go to all these Latin parties and saw loads of Latin bands. It really started my lifelong passion with this music."
Garcia describes his family as "mixed" because he has cousins from Algeria and the Ivory Coast. "All the sisters of my mother, who's French, got married to Africans. I didn't know what racism was, because we were all different colours. I only learnt about it when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, when I'd go out with them and see the reaction of other people just because they were black."
He has just delivered his fifth, and possibly finest, album Mascaras ("the mask"). Unlike Chao, Garcia's albums bathe in lush orchestration, but in this case his main inspiration is Mexico and in particular cumbia, reggaeton, and Latin sound systems, which explains why he employed the Mexican producer Toy Hernandez.
"It was very interesting to go to Mexico and work with a Mexican producer," says Garcia. "Toy Hernandez was one of the first producers to mix the roots of Mexican and Colombian music with hip-hop rhythms."
"The title is a reference to Mexican wrestling, because I love this sport," says Garcia. "I love the masks and the aggressiveness of it. They're like superheroes, but in real life. When I was in Monterrey we went to many wrestling matches and made a film about it. I also went inside the ring to try and be a wrestler."
Garcia's exploits in the ring ended with a badly twisted arm. "It's not so false," he says of the sport's reputation for theatrics. "It's real; the ground is really hard. But there is also a lot of theatre. You always have the two sides in Lucha Libre [the Mexican name for wrestling] that are good and bad. They call them técnicos (the good guys), and rudos (the bad guys). I think I was more técnicos!
Garcia and his friend and percussionist Ivan Montoya travelled to Monterrey (the capital city of the North Eastern Mexican state of Nuevo León) and stayed two months soaking up the sights and sounds, and collaborating with an array of home-grown talent amassed by Hernandez.
"There are a lot of frontier songs, maybe because I live partly in Spain now and hear about all the problems they're having with illegal immigrants. You also hear about people going from Africa to the Canaries, and dying while trying to cross the sea in tiny boats. And la linea [the border between Mexico and the United States] is a very important thing. Now I think illegal immigration is one of the biggest problems nowadays."
One track, "Si Solo Fuera Yo Un Pájaro", tackles the subject head on. "It's in "francespagnol" (French and Spanish) and is saying: 'If only I could be a bird. Birds have no frontiers.'" Another song, "Toi Tu Es Là Bas", is "the narrative of a wife or mother explaining what her son or husband had to do to get to the frontier, and after how he gets to this new land, and how he misses them".
"Guantanamo City" is a politically hard-hitting song written by Garcia's old friend from the Ludwig Von 88 days, Karim Berrouka. "It's about Guantanamo, a prison with no law that operates in the name of democracy. You have no idea what's happening there, but it's being operated by the so-called first nation of the world, which spends its time giving so many sermons and lessons, but is creating the worst kind of democracy.
There are also more playful songs such as "Yo Me Voy Pa Cumbia", about an orchestra playing cumbia in a city centre.
"I think this album is a synthesis of all the others," he concludes. "I'm attracted to street music. Cumbia is the sound of the barrio and that's what excites me."
'Mascaras' is out on EMI; Radio Timbo is at http://myspace.com/sgtogarciaReuse content