Born Oscar Tramor on June 26, 1961, in Paris, France; son of Ramon Tramor (a writer). Addresses: Record company--EMI Latin, 404 Washington Ave., Suite 700, Miami Beach, FL 33139. Website--Manu Chao Official Website:

Manu Chao won critical respect and public adulation for his music that combines Latin and Third World rhythms with a decidedly leftist political viewpoint and has drawn numerous comparisons to the English punk band the Clash during the era of that band's highly successful album Sandinista! In his music, such Caribbean forms of music as ska, reggae, calypso, and dub are blended with punk rock, Spanish, North African, and Tex-Mex musical influences and multilingual lyrics to create a style that Chao has labeled patchanka, a word adapted from a Mexican slang term that denotes a wild party. Chao honed his blend of the political and musical with the punk band Mano Negra for eight years in the 1980s and early 1990s. He proceeded to record as a solo artist and as leader of Radio Bemba Sound System; the words "radio bemba" are slang for "word-of-mouth."

Born Oscar Tramor on June 26, 1961, in France, Chao originally spoke Spanish, the language spoken by his parents. His father was a noted writer who was residing in Paris at the time of his son's birth. Following the demise of his 1970s band Les Hot Pants, Chao formed Mano Negra, a French and Spanish punk band heavily influenced by the Clash and named after a group of Spanish anarchists of the 1880s. Following the demise of Mano Negra, Chao abandoned Paris and spent the next four years as an itinerant musician, traveling throughout South America. He carried an eight-track recording device with him and wrote and recorded music in Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Brazil. He also spent time in Senegal and Mali. He described his lifestyle in an interview with Mark Schwartz at Barnes & "After Mano Negra, I was always moving, like a loco mosquito. I wasn't organized in my life.... I had things in Rio, in Mexico, in Barcelona. It was fun, but to be a little organized--to finish a job and put something on the market--was impossible."

While in Colombia, Chao bought a train in order to travel inside the country. He explained to Rolando Arrieta in a National Public Radio interview posted at Hartford Web Publishing online: "This train permitted us to get into the countryside. This part of Colombia is very tough and complicated, a lot of violence." According to Arrieta: "As he went from town to town, local villagers joined his crusade. Before he knew it, Manu Chao had assembled a traveling circus of musicians, magicians, trapeze artists and others. They helped him put on his shows, and inspired some of the songs...." The train, however, was not reliable and was subject to frequent mechanical problems. In addition, the Colombian army frequently commandeered the train in order to find guerillas in hard-to-reach areas. The shows performed by Chao and his entourage were attended by heavily armed audiences. "All people coming to the show, they all had a gun," he told Arrieta. "Everybody comes to the show with a gun, you know. It's really, really violent."

During this period, he recorded demos for more than 80 songs, freely writing lyrics in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English. Several of these songs eventually appeared on Chao's 1998 release, Clandestino. Dedicated to the Mexican Zapatista revolutionaries, the album is noted for its range of styles. According to San Francisco Bay Guardian online writer Camille T. Taiara: "With guitar strings plucked to the hypnotic rhythm of a moving train, Clandestino's songs follow in the form of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy: a succession of moments in the lives of the dispossessed that imbues the sentiments of his subjects with a humanizing universality." The album features songs about the economically dispossessed, the oppression of women, and environmental concerns.

Not all of the songs, however, are confined to political and social issues. "The King of Bongo Bong" is a humorous song in the manner of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," about a musician who travels from the jungle to play his bongos in the city. Ernesto Lechner, a Los Angeles Times music critic, told Arrieta: "It is very inspiring to see an artist like Manu Chao reach out in so many different directions and pull it off. Because the record is extremely cohesive. It has a very clear statement that it's making. And it's also, besides all the ideas and all the concepts and the lyrics, it's just a very, very beautiful record to listen to from beginning to end. It's really almost a concept album. It's a cycle of songs."

In April of 2000 Chao performed songs from Clandestino at a free concert in Zocalo, Mexico City's historical district, which is circled by the national palace, the ruins of the Aztec pyramid Templo Mayer, and a cathedral. The concert, performed with Chao's band Radio Bemba Sound System, attracted a record audience to the outdoor venue. An estimated 150,000 people attended the free concert despite the fact that there was no publicity for the event. Chao dedicated the concert to the students who were arrested for protesting university tuition hikes. Radio Bemba subsequently toured South America, appearing at concerts in Mendoza, Argentina, and Polho, Chiapas. The latter concert was held near the sight where government troops had assassinated 45 native refugees three years before. Tiara described a show in Tijuana, Mexico, a week later: "Seething with energy after hours of anticipation, the audience reacts in unison to the music. Impromptu slam pits pop up throughout the auditorium floor, and bodies roll overhead as soon as the band brings up the beat. People leap into the air as the sound reverberates from ten-foot speakers; shafts of blue, yellow, and red lights circle the stage and shine into the audience."

In 2001 Chao released Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, which roughly translates as "Next Stop: Hope." Recorded in his newly adopted home base in Barcelona, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza takes its title from a recorded message from the city's metropolitan transportation system. According to the Mark Schwartz in the Barnes & interview: "Given the existential doubts voiced on his groundbreaking 1998 hit Clandestino, a sonic travelogue culled from years spent wandering far-flung places, such optimism is surprising." The writer continued: "While Esperanza continues to trade in the same lo-fi samples and acoustic dreamscapes as Clandestino, it sounds more grounded." The writer added that this grounding may be the result of Chao recording the album in his Barcelona apartment. In 2002 he released the live album Radio Bemba Sound System. The album prompted Entertainment Weekly critic Will Hermes to note: "This rough-hewn, career-spanning live disc plays like a pirate-radio broadcast, and while the between-song jump cuts jar, the 29-song relay race never flags."

Chao's political consciousness is revealed in more than his lyrics. He has donated royalties to the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. He has also been an outspoken opponent of globalization, which he believes is another effort to exploit the economically disadvantaged and culturally dispossessed. He performed a free concert at the Genoa G8 demonstrations the day before massive riots broke out. Despite his activism, he has stated that he does not want to be perceived as the leader of any movement. He told BBC 3 writer Garth Cartwright, "The last thing the [anti-globalization] movement needs is for someone like me to be held up as its 'leader.' Getting away from icons and personality cults is what makes the movement so attractive."

by Bruce Walker

Manu Chao's Career

Formed rockabilly band Les Hot Pants, 1970s; formed Mano Negra, c. 1986; disbanded Mano Negra, 1994; moved to Spain, formed Radio Bemba Sound System, 1995; traveled extensively throughout South America, mid-1990s; released Clandestino, 1998; released Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, 2001; released live album Radio Bemba Sound System, 2002.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 15 years ago

I saw your show at Austin City Limits. When will you be in the Bay ARea of California?