Éloge de Manu Chao

Photo from the creative commons (Flickr user Tom Van Ghent)

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.

It seems the absence of “éloge” as a word in the English language and as a viable American literary genre says a lot about the United States. American writers are likely afraid that gushing about something would come across as 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 both counterbalance the cesspool of cynicism that pervades the internet, metastasizes into widespread disillusion, and — dare I say it — contributed to the toxicity that 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 in an artistic era that prizes irony, complexity and veiled meaning. 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’s been described as a rare artist who can bridge the Europe-Latin America divide (and he produced a great album for Amadou and Mariam, 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 the rigor and consistency of his compassion.

It’s hard to miss his empathy for the downtrodden. This is a 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 compassion comes across best in his song “La Vida Tombola.”

“La Vida Tombola” 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 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 flawed, obstinate and passionate. Through it all Manu Chao conveys a profound understanding and sympathy for him:

If I were Maradona

I’d go on Mondovision [TV]

To scream at FIFA [the soccer federation]

And say that they are big thieves

Photo from the Creative Commons (Flickr user Tom Van Ghent)

From a musical perspective this song is rich, with layers of acoustic guitar and horns on top of percussion. Manu Chao has 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 album it comes from. 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 said, “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 a song I listen to often, what Manu Chao accomplishes in it is remarkable. The choice of images is poetic but light, while the chorus, a mix of Spanish and French, conveys a profound and universally accessible sense of melancholy: “What am I going to do? I don’t know anymore. What am I going to do? I am lost.”

Manu Chao’s understanding of sadness contributes to his greatness. 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 conventional lines of privilege; his compassion extends to a word-famous soccer star, mentally ill people, undocumented immigrants and sex workers. 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.

Through it all, his concerts are essentially big dance parties. When I saw him perform in San Francisco in 2007 a man in the audience decided to take his clothes off while he danced. The naked man climbed on stage and began dancing. Manu Chao, being Manu Chao, didn’t skip a beat. He smiled, welcomed the man on stage and continued playing. At the end of the song Manu Chao and the naked man joined hands and raised them in celebration. 

So thank you Manu Chao. You embody compassion, straightforwardness, fun, erudition and poetry that are in such short supply. We need Manu Chao just like we need the éloge.

One response to “Éloge de Manu Chao”

  1. […] this was a values system characterized by pride in the word “cosmopolitan,” an affinity for Manu Chao, optimism about the transition from the Franc to the Euro, and excitement about the achievements of […]

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