By brewing together the addictive rhythms of folkie reggae, old-school ska, samba, Middle Eastern wailing, and flamenco and topping it off with a potent street blend of THC and sugared caffeine, Manu Chao proves he is a true international troubadour. Culled from the boulevards and bodegas of the world's borderlands, his latest effort is a worthy addition to anyone's cross-cultural collection, and with good reason: Chao's music is, above all, accessible. This is not the time to groan, though. We're not talking Shaggy here.
French-born but of Spanish descent, Chao spent the 1980s and early 1990s skankin' across the globe fronting the multilingual, politically leftist, alternapunk band Mano Negro, which rocked the world for a decade, becoming hugely successful in Europe and South America. Mano Negro's legacy is the stateside popularity and marketability of the genre Spanglishly labeled by some desk jockey as rock en español. Now comes Chao with his muezzinlike mewling, his guitar, his sack of weed, and his new band, Radio Bemba Sound Sistem, to make us sway, no matter how our day went. The new effort sounds a bit less rebellious and more celebratory than Mano Negro's 1998 album, Clandestino, even as it maintains Chao's flair for contagious melancholy. One-world consciousness and posi-vibe riddims abound in these songs, which mix English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Arabic phrases.
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Esperanza's first cut, "Merry Blues," sets the trend. It opens with radio clips, found sounds, and horns before introducing the ragamuffin and his guitar, while the band falls in with a simple reggae groove that all but enforces a sing-along by the second chorus. It's the cut most invoking Bob Marley, but the legend's style and vision are present throughout. The connection is most prominent in the main refrain of "Mr. Bobby," wherein Chao proclaims, "Hey Bobby Marley, sing something good to me/This world go crazy, it's an emergency." In "Me Gustas Tu," he's playful without getting too cute in a midtempo, lighthearted, surf-ska romp punctuated by a pennywhistle. One song spills into the next as spacious keyboard riffs, a sprinkling of steel drums, and a warm accordion flavor the 17 songs about lost love, immigrants, émigrés, the despondent, and the devilish. There's even a surreal, silly song about a crazy cow that flies. By the end of the album, you feel well traveled. One can only hope Manu will find a significant U.S. audience to enjoy his goods -- perhaps if he tours with Shaggy?