Chao's exercise in genre jumping

Posted: July 02, 2007

Manu Chao did so much jumping up and down at the Electric Factory on Friday that you might have thought the stage was a trampoline.

It was quite a workout for the calves for Chao and his backup band, Radio Bemba Sound System. The music occasioned all that hopping, both onstage and among the enthusiastic half-jam band half-Latino crowd that packed the house to see the world's only born-in-Spain raised-in-France multilingual punk-rock-rai-reggae-dub-salsa aerobic instructor rock-star rapper.

The 46-year-old Chao looked like a world music Bruce Springsteen impersonator, circa 1985, in stone-wash denim Capri pants and multicolored bandana. And at the Factory, the guitarist, whose full name is José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao and whose parents fled Francisco Franco's fascist regime for Paris when he was a boy, displayed boundless energy for obliterating musical genre boundaries.

He might break into a Spanish-language rap over a flamenco guitar lick, pound his microphone to his heart or his head for percussive effect on "Que Pasa Que Pasa," or transition from a Bob Marley roots rock reggae vibe into a punk shoutlalong straight out of the Ramones' Road to Ruin.

Actually, Chao - whose studio album La Radiolina is due in September (the first single, "Rainin' in Paradize," is a free download at - relied too heavily on that latter tactic throughout the nearly two-hour show.

The hyperactive Radio Bemba ensemble, with a shirtless guitarist and bass player (and beatboxer) flanking their leader, were - impressively - musically malleable throughout. But Chao, who calls himself a "citizen of the moment" and sang in Spanish, English, French, and perhaps other languages, such as the African Wolof, in which he also is fluent, has a tendency to turn every down-tempo number into a double-time football chant rave up.

That strategy was plenty effective in inciting the crowd to pogo, fist-pump and crowd surf, whether Chao was singing about immigration issues, Argentine deseparecidos, or giving President Bush a big thumbs down while sounding out against "politicians who fight violence with violence." But it had the not-so-salutary effect of overwhelming the individual character of Chao's many distinct musical moves, until everything started to sound sort of the same.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or

Read his blog, "In the Mix,"


comments powered by Disqus