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Addicted to Manu

Manu Chao saved my life.

The story begins in early 1999 in Peru, when I moved there to go to school and be near my family. Life in Lima was easy to adjust to. I had been there before, knew the city, loved the food and spoke the language. But there was one thing I couldn’t quite understand: the music.

When my father emigrated from South America to San Francisco in 1962, he brought with him lots of music. By the time I was born, our living room was filled with stacks and stacks of scratched 45s and LPs bent at the edges because they had been smuggled in the corners of fake leather luggage. Thanks to my father, the soulful voices of Jesus Vasquez, Lucha Reyes and the gut-wrenchingly beautiful guitar work of Los Embajadores Criollos made their way through customs and into my heart. These people weren’t just musicians; they were teachers. They taught me poetry, Spanish and all about a land that, at that point, I had felt little connection with.

While packing for my move to Peru, I purposely avoided bringing a single CD of my own and instead left lots of room to bring back modern versions of what my father had found.

But by the end of the first week I nearly went crazy.

I had spread the word to my cousins and friends that I was looking for the best new Peruvian music. Invariably, they’d play back songs sung in English. Much of it was from the ’80s — Simple Minds, the Cure, Duran Duran. None of it was Peruvian.

After I insisted that I wanted something in Spanish, they finally delivered a stack of CDs and tapes of “rock en Español.” It was good stuff — Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Babasonicos and Andres Calamaro. But it was all music I already knew. And it was all from Argentina.

I tried the live route, but Lima is a city that lives and dies in the dance clubs. What little live music I found usually featured bands covering songs by … Simple Minds, the Cure or Duran Duran.

Seeing that I was clearly suffering from serious music withdrawal, a friend at my school knew I needed help — fast.

“I know a guy,” my friend said, using words that even in Spanish usually lead to a dark alley. “He’s got what you’re looking for.”

Two hours later, after school, I met this friend at our city bus stop. It wasn’t dark and it wasn’t in an alley. It was hot as hell, and we were at the front entrance of the university.

“This is your man,” he said, handing over a bootlegged 60-minute cassette with one side labeled “Manu Chao,” the other “Clandestino.”

I took the tape, thanked my friend and hopped on the bus. Popping the cassette into my Walkman, I expected to hear either a sappy love song or maybe a salsa version of “Girls on Film.” But within the first few seconds of Chao’s choppy acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics about an immigrant suffering from shame, condemnation and shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” I knew I had found what I was looking for.

For the rest of that year I lived in Peru, Chao’s “Clandestino” was all I listened to because it was all I needed. Not having any artwork or pictures on the tape to know for sure, I pictured Chao as a combination of all my heroes — Che Guevara, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Emiliano Zapata and my father. His songs, sung in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese, were the perfect soundtrack for what I was seeing and feeling on that bus ride from school — from the hot Latin American sun burning the vinyl seats, to the guy next to me smelling of tequila and seafood. Chao sang about my frustrated friends who had no idea if they could ever find a good job but knew how to forget about it at night and have a good time anyway. He perfectly described the lady from the Andes who lived her life on the floor of my bus stop. And Chao sang about all of this within two or three songs.

Because the first song on “Clandestino” has Chao shouting something about Peru and perfectly describing the country I was living in, I assumed he was from South America. But after checking the Internet, I found out he had been born in Paris, where he was raised by a Basque mother and a Spanish father, both of whom had fled Franco’s dictatorship.

Chao spent much of his youth hanging around the subways of Paris, where he met other musicians and formed bands influenced by punk rock, North African music and Bob Marley. They started a band in the ’80s called Mano Negra, which had some success in Europe and Latin America. I checked out some of the music, and it was cool — but it didn’t speak to me the way “Clandestino” did.

What made “Clandestino” so special was the way Chao recorded it. After Mano Negra split up, Chao meandered around the world for about eight years carrying just a small four-track recording machine and acoustic guitar with him. He spent much of the time in Latin America and recorded sound effects such as city buses and conversations in the street and sampled them into his solo songs, making it sound as if the song were being sung from the back of a bus in Latin American traffic.

“Traveling is my school of life,” he said in the only interview I’ve ever seen of him. “And that was the best school you can have.”

After recording “Clandestino,” he released the solo album in 1998 and said he expected “only his Mommy” would buy it. By the end of 1999, more than 4 million copies had been sold, and Chao was getting ready to play concerts to more than 150,000 people in Mexico City.

But in early 1999, when I was first becoming addicted to his music, it felt as if only a few people cared as much as I did. Convinced that Chao would be embraced by my Peruvian friends as their Bob Dylan, I always played “Clandestino” at our weekend parties. But instead of looks of approval, I’d usually get frowns from my friends, who would insist I put Metallica back on, or at least some salsa.

Outside my small circle of friends, the people I could tell did dig Chao were taxi drivers. Living in Lima means living in a taxi much of the time. Because of my addiction to “Clandestino,” I would only board taxis (usually old Volkswagen Beetles) that had cassette players. My drivers would usually be irritated that I insisted on playing my music, but if I offered a little extra cash, they’d deal with it. Within 30 seconds of Chao shouting “Peruano!” and “Clandestino!” each new taxi driver would suddenly get a rush of adrenaline and start driving faster. Sometimes they’d pretend they knew the song, even when I could tell that they were hearing it for the first time. That’s what good music is supposed to do to people.

Invariably, the taxi driver and I would be so engulfed in Chao’s music we’d forget where we were going. On one occasion, we missed the turn to my home and ended up lost in a very sketchy barrio. As the driver attempted to make a U-turn around a dead end, three thuggish dudes holding sticks and rocks in their hands approached the car and forced us to stop. The windows were down, and Chao’s music blared out, describing the dirt roads, poverty and frustration that was staring us in the face.

With a rock still in his hand, the leader of the pack approached the passenger side of the car where I was sitting and said in Spanish, “Hey, isn’t this a Manu Chao song?”

I nervously nodded my head.

“I love this song,” he said, smiling and singing along. Then he let us go.

Chao, who lives mostly in Spain these days, has since recorded two other full-length CDs and one live album, each critically acclaimed by my soul. Last year, in his spare time, he helped produce and record an album for the blind couple from Mali known as Amadou and Mariam. The album, “Diamanche a Bamako,” is another lifesaver.

by Delfin Vigil

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