Artist, Autist, Activist

in Berlin, Germany

Manu Chao is more than a musician. Paradoxically, this is especially evident on concert days. A day with him and his band La Ventura in Berlin.

It’s a bearable day, weather-wise, a June evening in Berlin, a Saturday. Chet Faker is DJ-ing in a hotel lobby for fun, which is why I’m here. There are about two dozen people milling around the entrance. Tomorrow, Manu Chao will be performing with his band, currently called La Ventura, in Spandau Citadel, near the city. We had agreed to spend Monday together, at least that was what we’d discussed by e-mail. It’s just passed midnight when I see, in the semi-darkness in front of the same hotel, a short man in a baseball cap, smoking a cigarette. Over-knee pants, tank top, flip-flops. It that Manu Chao? A tall, muscular bald man is standing near him. That must be Gambeat, the bass player. «Manu?» – «Si!» What a coincidence.

Fifteen minutes later he’s at our table, introduces himself, «Hola, Manu», and hands me an all-access pass for the next day. «If you want, you can meet us here at 1pm tomorrow and drive to the venue with us, in the band van. We can eat together and you’ll get to see sound check.» I ask if that really is possible. «Sure, you’re part of the family now.

Twelve hours later, the same table outside the hotel. The sun is out and no one’s here. A man with a guitar on his back walks in – he doesn’t look like he slept at the hotel. Then the two trumpeters, the guy with the guitar and Manu step squinting into the light and sit down. Manu takes a small guitar from its black case, it’s from Cordoba in Argentina, I love it», starts playing and doesn’t stop until sound check. The scene in the Berlin Sunday sunshine looks so peaceful that I reflexively want to take a photo. I ask if I can. He’d rather not, Manu says between chords. But I’ll need photos for the text. Las tendras, you’ll have them, he answers, and I have no idea what he means. But today I’m part of the family and surely, he wouldn’t lie to family.

By around 1:30pm, everyone has squeezed into the unobtrusive black Mercedes van. Manu and the guitarist Madjid are right in the back. They’re playing a song that is probably called «I’m your lover».The song certainly isn’t on any CD. «We can try this one tonight», they say nonchalantly, and move to the next song. The band speak mainly French, mixed with Spanish and English. A Message To You Rudy. Everybody sings along, except Biljana, the tour manager, who smiles quietly to herself and looks content. The drive to the Citadel Music Festival takes around 40 minutes. Gambeat, sitting in front, asks the driver thirty minutes in whether this is even still Berlin.

«The entire day is dedicated to the show, I hardly communicate. I become totally autistic.»

The birds fly low over the empty expanse in front of the stage; maybe it will rain today. Little towers, small houses of red brick and bar tents surround us. Most of the musicians light cigarettes and head straight to the stage for sound check. Philippe, better known as Garbancito, has joined us. He says he could have someone set up the drums for him, mais je dois faire le moi-même, but he has to do it himself, or something might go wrong. Suddenly there’s a loud bang and Garbancito pulls a face like he’s just dropped 20 raw eggs. Something to do with the technical equipment.

A short path leads from the stage and up two steps to a small building which makes up the backstage area. A large room for the band, a smaller one for everyone else, Login, Biljana’s colleague, explains. They are both from Serbia and have been managing the band’s (eastern) European tours for four years. He seems like quite a practical guy; the pair complement each other well. We non-band members aren’t allowed in the band’s room, at least not before the concert. You can’t see in from outside; the window shutters are closed and the little window in the door is covered by a bit of paper. When I first pass by there to find the toilet, the door is still open for the band members in the hallway or smoking outside. Manu is lying on his back in front of a sofa, knees bent, arms angled at the elbows, his palms facing the ceiling, his eyes closed.

I’m beginning to understand. He had told me months ago in an e-mail: «I assure you, concert days are the most boring days you can spend with me. The entire day is dedicated to the show, I hardly communicate. I become totally autistic.” This becomes apparent at lunch time. A white tent, nicely arranged over the water that hugs the citadel. Gambeat, Garbancito and some others are already here, laughing, joking, all in French. I’m sitting at the table with the young trumpeter Gabriele, Login and Biljana. We eat silently. Manu comes in a bit later, gets himself some pasta salad, a minestrone, and joins us. The pasta is for later, he’s only just had breakfast. Last night probably went on longer than planned. He eats his soup silently, too, but he isn’t relaxed. He’s constantly dropping his spoon with a clatter, taking notes in a colourful little notebook the size of a bag of tobacco. Or he takes a long, deep breath, or massages acupressure points on his forehead or his ears, whistles a melody, stretches his legs on the bench that only he is left sitting on. Could it be that somebody like Manu Chao, even after decades on stages all over the world, is nervous for hours before a concert? Or is this just his way of collecting the most possible energy for the show? To centre mind, spirit and body, so that they become one for almost three hours? It’s probably a bit of everything.

Later, as I pass by the band’s room again, Manu is sitting on the sofa he’d been lying next to earlier, working on his laptop, wearing sun glasses. Just minutes later I hear music coming from the stage. This is no longer sound check, this is a rehearsal! The characteristic sound of the guitar, for which mainly Madjid and his instrument are responsible, rings across the empty space. The guitar looks like it has never seen the inside of a case. It probably really hasn’t. This morning, at least, it was slung across Madjid’s upper body, neck down, in a pretty relaxed way. When, a bit more than an hour in, Manu passes the microphone to Garbancito, who leaves his drums for “Sidi H’bibi”, the energy on stage is at its peak. And the group seems like a punk kindergarten on their stage playground.

Gambeat

It is almost 5pm. Manu says he likes performing in Germany but he really doesn’t understand why shows must always start at 7:30pm. The door to the band’s room is now firmly shut. Who knows what the men are doing in there. At lunch, someone said something about meditation and yoga. Garbancito stops by our room to ask where they can smoke after the concert. The band appreciates tobacco, that much at least is clear.

Whatever happens in the next two hours remains their secret. It makes sense to recapitulate here, before the show starts, and look at Manu Chao’s background, without just rattling off his biography. His parents are from Spain, but he grew up in Paris. A week after the concert in Berlin, he had his 54th birthday. Which is hard to believe, when you look at him. His lively, mischievous eyes, paired with constantly raised brows and a wide grin, make him seem younger than he is. Boyish, almost. His body and his walk seem those of a youthful skater who spends his free time out in the sun, doing sport, and who doesn’t yet know the meaning of «shortness of breath».

Mano Negra was the name of the band, founded in 1987, with which Manu Chao had his first success. His brother Antoine Chao and others, including Garbancito, were a part of it. The current band still play Mano Negra songs, though slightly altered, on stage. The band broke up in 1995, after spending time with other artists on a truly mad journey: Spending months travelling through Columbia on an abandoned railway track in renovated carriages, performing music and other art in isolated villages in the jungle. Ramon Chao, father and author, was along for the ride and wrote a book about the experience: The Train of Ice and Fire – Mano Negra in Columbia. Here, besides a lot of crazy, inspiring and some downright disconcerting occurrences, he describes how his son let him join under two conditions. First, he, Manu, didn’t want the book to be about him, and second, it wasn’t allowed to be as much of a mess as Ramon’s last effort.

Madjid

Eventually, Manu moved to Barcelona, where he still has something like a residence, even if he says his home is the band van. Barcelona is also the home to a bar he’s attached to at heart: the Mariatchi.

Somewhere in the narrow alleys of Barrio Gotico there are fairly-priced drinks, live music from up-and-coming local artists and, along with olives, vermouth and honey schnapps, there are also concert tickets for sale, for bands no one has ever heard of. Atomik Pardalets, Manola da Viola or Roberta Kitapena. These shows all have some things in common: The tickets are only available at a certain time, at Mariatchi, for 10 Euros. They take place in the Sala Salamandra in Hospitalet or elsewhere in the outskirts of the city. And the posters are all obviously designed by the same artist. His name: Wozniak. Even casual followers of Manu Chao’s work will know that he not only has posters, CDs and his website, but also his clothing designed and painted by Wozniak. They’ve even published a children’s book together. It’s not hard to imagine who this ominous Manola da Viola might be, and why she still enjoys performing intimate shows with a small audience. And with some luck, Manu won’t delete this telling anecdote from the text when he proofreads it.

The area in front of the stage is packed and the supporting act, a band from Berlin, is in full swing. Even they are clearly looking forward to tonight’s main act and try to establish their connection with random Spanish words («Mucho, mucho!!!»). La Ventura prepare themselves behind the stage, now everyone is nervous. Manu is wearing a red shirt, painted by Wozniak, and the flag of the indigenous people of the Andes as a belt. He beats his chest like a gorilla. And then they’re on.

Standing at the edge of the audience during the show, you can see a constant stream of people emerging from the middle of it, dripping with sweat and beaming with happiness, on their way to cool off or get a beer. These shows can go for almost three hours and never lose energy. If the band weren’t on stage, you couldn’t tell the difference between them and the audience. Bouncy, sweaty and happy. Manu strikes the microphone to his chest and it feels like you can hear his heart beating – BOOM BOOM BOOM. This is what Manu Chao does on stage: He spreads out his heart. Not as an entertainer, but as someone who wants to reach the innermost in people. «43 Students have disappeared in Mexico. We want them alive! We want them alive! We want them alive!» And for a moment, thousands of people hope with all their hearts that these 43 students are alive. And those who don’t know what’s going on determine to find out.

«Te lo digo, te lo canto: Fuera Monsanto! I say to you, I sing to you: Out with Monsanto!»

His connection to the Latin American people isn’t just clear in his song texts, but in his political and economic views, which he passionately shares on stage.

Two encores. In between, almost everyone on stage lights a cigarette, even just if it’s only for three breaths. But finished is finished. As the last note subsides and the audience cheers – in a way that could be described as aggressive – La Ventura leaves the stage without turning around, and heads to the back stage area. It’s time for dinner. And for the first photo of the band together in more than ten years. The daughter of some friends of Manu’s is visiting Berlin. She was also at the Citadel all day. She’s a photographer and Manu knew that she would take the kind of photos for this text that he and the band are happy with.

24 hours have passed since the absolute coincidence that happened out the front of the hotel. He’s on the sofa in his boxer shorts, I’m sitting on the floor where he’d been lying before the show. He’s drinking red wine from a paper cup, I have a bottle of beer. I offer to send him the profile by e-mail, I don’t want to bother him this late at night. He declines. And the answer to the question of where Manu Chao sees himself in ten years is so surprising that it can’t be relegated to the profile. He wants to be near the ocean, salt water is the best doctor, the real one, he says calmly. «I may be a city rat, but soon I’ll have to get closer to nature. And speaking of doctors: I’d like to become a doctor before I turn 60. I’m not sure what kind. Maybe chiropractor or osteopath. But I love meeting doctors to ask them questions, tons of questions. I’m a pain in the ass to them because I always ask and ask and ask. I would like to learn seriously. But for that I’ll have to stop touring – and I don’t want yet! I love my band, I love singing in the van, on stage or anywhere, I love the people coming to our shows. They are a very good doctor, too.»

Want to know more about Manu Chao? Read his Profile