By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
With his delirious mixture of pop, disco, folk, punk, calypso and reggae, Manu Chao has been at the forefront of the rock en español movement for several years. While performing with Mano Negra in the 1980s and '90s, he fused punk energy with a hybrid of world-music influences, resulting in a sound that was culturally and musically organic rather than merely appropriative. Chao's music of the period was hugely influential to non-Anglo rock bands worldwide, especially in South and Central America. Solo, Chao tends to be a bit more contemplative musically and considerably more outspoken politically. He's not strictly rock en español, though, composing and singing in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Portuñol (a jumble of Portuguese and Spanish invented by people living in frontier zones). These frontier zones are of particular interest to Chao, whose extraordinary first solo release, Clandestino (Virgin), gave voice to the mestizos, those people who inhabit many places and nowhere simultaneously.
Chao's new release, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (roughly translated, Next Stop: Hope), continues his collage technique, juxtaposing materials that slowly evolve into songs (or, at the very least, into enjoyable bits of fused noise). Chao's linguistic plasticity is matched by the CD's wide assortment of instruments, including a Chilbi organ on "Papito," a shuffle guitar on "Merry Blues" and a child's flute in "Me Gustas Tu." The latter is a pop celebration of all the things he likes, a postmodern "A Few of My Favorite Things," if you will, that invites listeners to add their own catalogs. The more political "Mr. Bobby" takes up a riff from Clandestino and demands of "Bobby" Marley a salve for encroaching hopelessness: "Tonight I watch through my window/and I can't see no light/Tonight I watch through my window/and I can't see no rights."
The variety of instruments and languages is rendered more chaotic by audio fragments of radio DJs, sound clips and speeded-up vocals. What remains familiar in this pandemonium is the core Mano Negra rhythms and melodies that infuse much of Chao's solo work. Although there's obvious recycling from Chao's lifetime of performing -- two pieces share the "King of the Bongo" melody -- this speaks less to a lack of inspiration and more to Chao's musical philosophy; recycling for him, as for many folk artists, is a matter of reinterpretation rather than laziness, of playing with tradition and repetition rather than making the wheel anew each time. This may make Esperanza a less novel effort than Clandestino, but the payoffs remain. At its best, Esperanzais a sharp, subversive musical calaloo.