As they do, the French have a highfalutin word for a literary genre that doesn’t exist in the United States. The éloge, in which a writer unabashedly praises something, is alive and well in France. The éloge doesn’t exist in the United States and I believe this absence says a lot about our era and surroundings. Writers are likely afraid that gushing about something’s greatness would come across as corny or overly sentimental — the opposite of what most publications are going for in this age of cynicism and irony.
But for a while now, I have wanted to write an éloge about the musician Manu Chao. I’ve wanted to write about Manu Chao in this way because I really, really love his music, but more than that, Manu Chao and the éloge are both fabulous counters to the cesspool of cynicism that pervades the internet, breeds disillusion, generally bums people out and — dare I say it — brought us Trump. Both the éloge and Manu Chao are optimistic in a world that is pessimistic. Both the literary genre and the musician prize straightforwardness while the world around them is increasingly convoluted and complicated. And both strive for a poetic sensibility in a world that decidedly does not. So consider my admiration of Manu Chao and my desire to express it to be a statement of resistance, gosh darnit, a counter-cultural effort at sincerity and optimism adrift in the swamp of the internet.
In more ways than one, Manu Chao is the ultimate anti-Trump. A French-born musician of Spanish heritage, Manu Chao sings from the perspective of people migrating from Mexico to the United States, he protests the agricultural company Monsanto and he is the rare artist who can bridge the Europe-Latin America divide (and he produced an awesome album for Amadou and Mariam, the musicians from Mali). While Trump doubles down on his Make-America-Great-Again base, Manu Chao sings in French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese.
But to really understand what makes Manu Chao great, one should start with his compassion. His empathy for the downtrodden is hard to miss; this is, after all, the musician who recorded a music video outside of an immigrant detention center in Arizona, produced an album with patients in a psychiatric hospital in Argentina and wrote a song honoring prostitutes who work the streets.
But I think Manu Chao’s sense of compassion comes across best in his song “La Vida Tombola,” which is about Diego Maradona, the Argentinian soccer player who is generally considered to be one of the best ever at his sport.
Now in his fifties, Maradona has lived a life of ups and downs. In addition to leading Argentina to the World Cup and dominating European club soccer, Maradona’s Wikipedia page lists his cocaine addiction, his struggles with obesity, his divorce and his financial problems.
In “La Vida Tombola” (“The Lottery of Life”), Manu Chao describes how if he were Maradona, he would live just like the superstar. “I’d live like him,” Manu Chao sings, “a thousand rockets, a thousand friends,” “in front of any goal,” “lost someplace.” The Maradona described in the song is a Maradona who is flawed, obstinate and passionate, and through it all Manu Chao conveys a profound understanding and sympathy for the man. Oh, and he does this all with simple language and in a lighthearted tone (the translation is mine):
If I were Maradona
I’d go on Mondovision [TV]
To scream at FIFA [the soccer federation]
And say that they are big thieves
From a musical perspective this song is rich, with layers of acoustic guitar and horns on top of percussion. Manu Chao has often been faulted for what this French newspaper article eruditely calls his “recyclage” — many of the guitar riffs in “La Vida Tombola” can be heard elsewhere on the album. But I think Manu Chao’s recyclage, so to speak, is actually one of his strengths; it is a symptom of Manu Chao’s larger interest in poetic simplicity. He wants to make these riffs familiar to the listener and to explore them for all they’re worth. Besides, as Manu Chao says, “If I have toys that please me, I have no reason to seek out other ones.”
Manu Chao is probably best known for his 2001 hit “Me Gustas Tu” (“I love you”), in which he names things he likes and repeats “I love you.” Although this is not one I listen to often, what Manu Chao accomplishes in the song is remarkable. The choice of images is poetic but light, while the chorus, a mix of Spanish and French, conveys a profound and universalizable sense of melancholy: “What am I going to do? I don’t know anymore. What am I going to do? I am lost.”
Ultimately Manu Chao’s understanding of sadness is also part of what makes him great (from what I have read online he has spent much of his life melancholy and adrift). He is the rare person who sees the pain and joy in people across traditional lines of privilege; his compassion extends to a word-famous soccer star, the mentally ill, undocumented immigrants and prostitutes. And he offers a political sensibility that is global, unifying, on the side of the oppressed and respectful of difference, while being decidedly against big capitalism and imperialism. He is the best thing globalization has to say for itself.
And through it all, what he produces is celebratory; his concerts are a dance party. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that when I saw him perform in San Francisco in 2007 he invited a naked man to come up and dance with him on stage.)
So thank you Manu Chao; you’re a walking, talking embodiment of what’s most needed.