Review #469: Clandestino, Manu Chao

Karla Clifton
3 min readNov 21, 2023

#469: Clandestino, Manu Chao

Manu Chao might be the punkest musician on RS’s list. He was born in Paris, after his parents defected from Spain. He also started out his career as a street busker, and — fun fact — will still busk to this day, which is kind of beautiful and inspiring, especially because while Chao never quite broke through in the US, he’s a bit of a star abroad. And he recorded his debut mostly all by himself, relying on other musicians only for horn and backing vocal parts, armed with only a laptop. Pre-2000, for that matter.

“Clandestino” is a term for undocumented immigrants, a people that Chao does his best to champion. The music video is Chao and a parade of “illegal” human beings, showing off the papers they do or don’t have, looking grim and happy and like human beings. Most of his songs, when the lyrics are translated, translate as some political proverb: see “Mentira…” and “Lágrimas de Oro” for other songs that express both frustration at the state of the world and compassion for the people in it.

Chao’s building bridges here, connecting different cultures under the way he sees and hears the world. The fact that he sings in so many different languages isn’t just important to the spirit of this record, it’s impressive as hell! He sings in French (“Je ne t’aime plus,” “La vie à 2”) Brazilian Portuguese (“Desaparecido,” “Minha Galera”) and Spanish (too many to count). Not to mention English — but I promise that “Bongo Bong” isn’t my favorite just for that reason. Every monkey’d like to be/ In my place instead of me/ ’Cause I’m the king of bongo, baby/ I’m the king of bongo bong. That will be stuck in my head for the next ten years.

He recorded this all over the world, and another central theme to his work is about vagabondship. “Welcome to Tijuana” makes it sound like a party, calling himself “the Coyote” and celebrating Tequila, sexo y marihuana. “El Viento” makes it a little more mystical, comparing himself to the wind, which knows no borders. But other times, he confesses that he can be lonely — see “Malegría” and the heartwrenching “Mama Call.”

Beyond the staunch political and philosophical stances Chao takes, he’s a truly adept musician and producer. His guitar parts aren’t too simple, but not too complicated, either, and always energetic and full of joy. He shows off his versatility on songs like “Luna y Sol” and “Día Luna… Día Pena,” which feature the same chorus of Arriba la luna, oh-eh-ah, but delivered in radically different ways. He also makes use of samples in a way that would make De La Soul proud — I loved the hype man in the background of “Por el Suelo,” as well as the clips from Chao’s own voicemail on “La despedida.”

Listen, I’m a punk rock fan. I love how it sounds, and I love punk rock principles. But I’d be naive to pretend that most punk bands are little more than another branch of a corporate entity, buying and selling themselves in order to make a living doing what they love. I have nothing against it — I respect it, even. It doesn’t ruin my enjoyment, as long as I remind myself of the cold, hard truth.

This, though. THIS is punk.

Random Observation: Now that I only have about thirty albums to go, I can’t help but notice that not a single K-pop album made the cut. Anyone a K-pop fan? Any recs?

Review #468: Some Girls, The Rolling Stones

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