Interview: Manu Chao: The bandana plays on

Manu Chao has a CD out and UK dates in October. Oh, and we're all invited to his local in Barcelona
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The Independent Culture

When I meet Manu Chao in Paris, he's in the musical equivalent of post-natal euphoria. "The final track was mastered 10 minutes ago, so you've got me at a good time," he beams. The party atmosphere is understandable, for La Radiolina is the first new studio album from the world's favourite multimillion selling maverick globalista in six years.

The record should have been out in May, but he couldn't stop tinkering with the mixes and it was mid-July before he finally handed over the completed tapes to his French record-company. Not that he will concede that the record is really finished. "A CD is only a snapshot of the songs at a given time," he says. "With a laptop you can never stop remixing, and I only stopped now because I wanted to do other things. Maybe next week I'll smoke a joint and make a new lyric. The songs can never be finished. You could have a link on the CD to a website where people can hear the new versions..." Welcome to the strange but undeniably wonderful world of Manu Chao.

It turns out to be a perfectly timed moment to meet this small man, in his mid-forties, who's dressed in sawn-off denims and a defiantly proletarian flat cap. His accented English makes him sound almost exactly like José Mourinho.

In the past, Chao has come across as a reluctant interviewee whose rare encounters with the press have seldom conveyed the exuberant joy and passion of his music. I had him down as someone who preferred to let the music do his talking. Yet today, with his laptop so freshly closed, the verbal floodgates are open; it seems he just can't stop talking.

It's almost a decade since Chao's sparkling solo debut, Clandestino. Initially a cult classic, it went on to sell more than four million copies around the world. It was followed in 2001 by the similarly styled Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, but – discounting a live album in 2002 – it's been an inordinately long wait for the third installment. "The time went really quick," Chao insists. "There's no real reason it's taken so long except that I've been involved in a lot of other things."

His extracurricular activities include producing records by the blind Malian duo Amadou and Mariam and the Algerian singer Akli D ("That takes a long time, because when you produce your own records you have a responsibility, but when you produce a record for your friends it's a far bigger responsibility"), producing a book with the illustrator Jacek Wozniak, and writing a song about the footballer Diego Maradona for a film by Emir Kusturica. "There. Six years gone!"

During that time the world has changed dramatically – and hardly for the better. Chao has always been a radical whose politics come from the same school of populist insurrection as Bob Marley and Joe Strummer, but he's never sounded more engaged than on La Radiolina. Songs such as "Politik Kills", "Panic Panic" and "Rainin' In Paradize", on which he manages to rhyme "democracy" with "atrocity", deal uncompromisingly with the state of the world. Like Marley, however, Chao has the happy knack of writing universal anthems of protest that transcend the current cause, and even when singing about the ghastly errors of the Iraq conflict or castigating Bush and the world's leaders for unspeakable crimes, he still injects a sense of wit and optimism into his music.

The revolution, he seems to be saying, can be nothing unless it's a party. "That's always been my way," he agrees. "I learnt in South America and in Africa that people who have really big problems in the ghetto always keep a sense of humour and remain positive. If not, you go down. You wake up every morning and have to find a solution to feed your family. You can't afford to be sad and depressed. For me, the more I think about the problems of the world, I feel I have to be positive. I wouldn't like to fall into cynicism or nihilism. That's not in my nature."

But, along with his music, politics is very much in Chao's genes. Born in Paris in 1961, he grew up in a left-wing and intellectual Spanish family, who sought exile in France after his grandfather fled Franco's fascist regime. In his teens, he fell under the influence of punk rock, The Clash in particular, before forming the multiracial Mano Negra in 1987. Fusing agit-punk, reggae, Latin and North African influences, the band signed to Virgin and enjoyed some success before they fell apart in 1983 after a frankly insane tour of Colombia. For six weeks, Chao led his musical troops across the war-torn country by train, stopping at villages to play impromptu concerts to audiences of peasants, guerrillas and drug traffickers. The journey was so fraught that by the time they reached Bogota, only Chao and one other band member were left.

For the next few years he dropped out, travelling the world, staying in backpacker hostels. In his backpack was a portable tape machine on which he recorded Clandestino, a hippie manifesto full of ridiculously catchy tunes and imbued with a party vibe that proved irresistible. In the world music racks, only Buena Vista Social Club has sold more. The album's appeal proved so universal that one of its songs, "Bongo Bong", was covered last year by the unlikely team of Robbie Williams and Lily Allen.

Yet, in spite of such commercial success, Chao remains the ultimate man of the people and champion of the underdog, an anti-star who plays the fame game only on his own terms. Stories of his bohemian contempt for the trappings of celebrity abound. When Virgin sent the photographer Yuri Lanquette on the road with him for three weeks to shoot an album cover, they could not understand how he returned with a portfolio of pictures in which the singer was wearing the same shirt in every shot. Lanquette had to explain that Chao travelled so light that he only had the one shirt, which he washed in the sink every night.

The publicist Gerry Lyseight fondly recalls Chao's refreshing lack of self-importance. "I took him to a radio station for an interview and when we were finished there was no sign of the car the record company had booked," he recalls. "Instead of throwing a tantrum, as would most stars who've sold several million records, he said, 'Come on, let's get the Tube.' When we got to the station there was a busker and Manu got out his guitar and asked the guy if he could play with him."

On another occasion, after his record company had spent weeks negotiating a sought-after slot on Later With Jools Holland, he announced that he couldn't appear because he was off backpacking.

His grass-roots style extends to his politics. While Bono and Bob Geldof consort with presidents and prime ministers, you're more likely to find Chao hanging out with a collective of Spanish prostitutes or a group of psychiatric patients in a Buenos Aires hospital. The voices of both can be heard on his new album and his identification with the dispossessed is one of the reasons why, if you ask the protesters at a G8 summit or the residents of the Heathrow climate camp what's on their iPods, the answer will be Chao rather than U2.

"I respect Bono and Bob Geldof's way of doing it, but I don't believe in leaders," he says simply. "They can't move the wheels or find the brake any more. The capitalist system is out of control. Everybody should be their own leader. In our own lives and families and neighbourhoods, we can find solutions to live together in a more soulful way. Everybody can do it. That's what I try to do in my neighbourhood."

In fact, Chao has several neighbourhoods and divides his time between homes in Barcelona, Paris and Brazil, where his son lives. It's a cosmopolitan, citizen-of-the-world lifestyle that is fully reflected in his genre-hopping music. Yet if the new record has all the global party spirit of Clandestino, there's one big difference: the rock guitars of his band Radio Bemba that dominate many of its tracks. Was that a conscious move?

"For sure. When I recorded Clandestino I didn't have a band, so I played all the guitar myself with two fingers in a really rustic way," he says. "But now the band is very strong. We all live together in Barcelona, so it was obvious to do that. The guitars were all recorded in one day."

La Radiolina finds him singing in French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Italian. Have his polyglot tendencies made it more difficult to sell records in the Anglo-American market? "I have to say that's not my problem, but funnily enough I started out singing in English," he says. "When I began making music I was a bass player in the band in my neighbourhood gang. They couldn't find a singer and as I was the smallest and not so tough, they said, 'You're going to be the singer or we smash you up.' So I started singing a lot of rock covers and the first songs I wrote were in English. After that, I started writing in Spanish because we always sung in Spanish when we were busking in bars. I was ashamed to sing in French because I really felt rock'*'roll and French didn't fit. It was only when I listened to the old French music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf that I started writing in French. I heard those lyrics and I said, 'That's the real rock'n'roll.'"

There do not seem to have been any language difficulties on his recent six-week tour of America where he won over mainstream rock audiences, including 90,000 Rage Against the Machine fans at the Coachella festival. Nor did he find any problem over his outspoken criticisms of American foreign policy. With the stage draped with a banner declaring " Immigrants are not criminals", every night he attacked Bush and his "war on terror", telling audiences: "You cannot fight terrorism with terrorism, you should fight violence with education." Night after night, he says, the comment drew a wildly enthusiastic response.

Alongside his contempt for "big government", he has a healthy dislike of big record companies and little time for the world music industry. "For me, there is no such thing as world music. That can only come when an artist from Nigeria records in Nigeria and the record company is from Nigeria. At the moment the music is from the Third World but the business is still in the First World. It's neo-colonialist."

Given his distaste for all notions of commerce, how important is it to him that his own records sell? "I prefer it if people like the music, and if we sell millions that's better than selling nothing," he says. " But personally I don't care. I've got enough to live and I don't need any more. If people like this CD, that's positive because it means we can tour with the band and I like to do that."

Headlining British dates are scheduled for October, but he's just as happy playing in a bar for nothing more than a few beers. "You can come and see me any time in my neighbourhood bar in Barcelona," he says. " When we're not on tour I'm there every night." As I leave, he hands me a card that says "Bar Mariatchi, c/ codols 14, barrio gotico." "See you there, everybody's welcome."