Friday, August 15, 2008

The Manu elixir

Manu Chao and the Radio Bemba Sound System
Hootananay, Brixton, 19 July 2008

‘La lucha sigue!’ It is 3am on a Saturday night and Manu Chao is in a Scottish pub in London, dedicating a Mexican song to the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America. The struggle continues, he says. But it is rare to hear those words spoken in an atmosphere of such collective joy.

You expect a degree of intensity when a band that could fill stadiums is packed into a pub, but it wasn’t so much the venue as the Radio Bemba spirit that gave this show a feeling of intimacy. From the opening strains of ‘El Hoyo’, the crowd – a mix of the Latino regulars of Movimientos (a politically-conscious London club night) and a fair few Brixton locals – pogoed uncontrollably to the band’s ska-punk rhythms.

Even the slower songs like ‘Clandestino’, Manu’s testament to the lives of migrant workers declared ‘illegal’, and ‘Mr Bobby’, his reggae-tinged tribute to Bob Marley, were super-charged. It was as though they had bottled the energy from the band’s headline set at the Lovebox festival earlier that evening and concentrated it. The resulting elixir was willingly consumed by 500 or so South London punters, with intoxicating effects.

Intensity alone doesn’t explain the experience, but repetition might help to do so. When Manu Chao and Radio Bemba play live, you don’t so much expect a setlist as a series of melodies, chants and rhythms that escalate and evolve. This then builds into a mania, as songs are spliced together, breaking into a crescendo of fast-paced percussion and frantic, rhythmic guitars, until you’re released, without warning, into a new melody and the process starts over.

For the audience, this means you rarely have time to catch onto one tune when you’re bouncing in the air to the next one, arms flailing. Then before you know it, that tune is gone again, only to reprise later and at double pace. The effect can be delirious, and even a little over-whelming. But that night in Brixton it was rarely less than electrifying, as for an hour and a half Manu bounded around the stage, guitarist Madjid Fahim struck outrageous rock poses, and the rest of the Radio Bemba Sound System played and sweated out every beat. By the time the show drew to a close, Manu was pounding the microphone on his chest and head, reproducing through our ears the heartbeat we could all feel coursing through our veins.

This may not be the classical sense of ‘playing from the heart’, but there’s more than a chance that the causes behind the Brixton gig – a fundraiser for the Native Spirit Foundation - gave it extra bite. The organisation is currently gearing up for an Indiginous Peoples’ film festival in London this October, which will focus on the environment and climate change. It also funds a number of autonomous educational projects for children in Indigenous Wayuu and Mapuche communities in Venezuela, Chile and Argentina.

Manu Chao’s affinity with Latin America is well known, but the central importance of education to his political activism may be less appreciated. ‘The priority is children’ he told me at Glastonbury a few weeks previously, in an interview conducted at the same campfire where the plan for the secret Brixton benefit gig was hatched. ‘I’m really scared of the education we give to the children in neighbourhoods all over the world … because they’re not educated anymore by the family, they’re not educated anymore by school, they’re totally educated by television. And television doesn’t respect anything, so there are a lot of kids growing respecting nothing.’

‘I think the emergency,’ Manu continued, with fervent passion, ‘is to start working with the little kids now, so that there another two or three generations totally brainwashed by television – all quick money, a lot of violence, everything must be easy, everything new, no work ethic, anyone who works is an arsehole. That’s very dangerous, and if it continues the end of it’s going to be a lot of violence.’

That may sound an apocalyptic political outlook, but it is one that is offset by his unerring sense of how change at a neighbourhood level can empower broader social change. ‘I don’t believe any more in one big revolution that’s going to change everything. I believe in thousands and thousands of little neighbourhood revolutions – that’s my hope.’

And for as long as Manu Chao can muster the unerring hope and hedonistic abandon that he brought to Brixton, these revolutions have also found their perfect soundtrack. La lucha sigue!

For more details of Movimientos and the Native Spirit Foundation, see and


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