Monday 29 June 2015

Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band

Manu Chao at Kilmainham
6 days after his 54th birthday, June 27 2015
© Aya Zen Dada ©

i've spontaneously fallen in love with seventeen people at once. If i ever wake up, i'm going to sail to Galicia with a samba band of liberated sex-workers and post-addiction artisans. We will feast on Cuban rum and cigars, Jamaican sensi and organic produce from the Occupy Farm. We will breed a mighty tribe to transition humanity into peace and graceful presence in Pacha Mama's garden. A-men, A-Manu, A-Chao, A-men.

Best gig ever. Don't know what the boys on stage were doing, but down where i was, everyone was having the time of their lives. i got swept up in a Rainbow Carnevàle forty meters out from the horns. Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band brought their own flamenco hand-claps, raver whistles, jungle click-clack claves, reindeer bell sticks, a capella trombone riffs and multi-lingus sing-a-longs to Kilmainham. Last night, you weren't at the gig - you were in the band.

Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band
Lingering near the sound desk coming up to show-time, I heard the syncopated click of the clacking calves and a chorus of festy chants. A train of enthusiasm weaving away from the booze and fast food stalls through the grey of a Dublin summer, all handclaps, whistles and bouncy bods. i warmed up the hands with some off beat slaps, fell in on the chuck bandwagon. We cut a path though the throngs to a spot near the front.

Manu Chao and his band play a high energy joyous mix of riffs in a variety of styles, interspersed with songs in a variety of languages. "Mr Bobby" pays tribute to Bob Marley in Reggae English; "La Vida Tombola" to Maradonna in Salsa Spanish. i hear French, Catalan, Portuguese, Arabic. i feel punk, circus, ska, rock, flamenco. 

Manu grew up in Parisian suburbs. His father Ramón came to Paris from Valalba in Galicia on a classical piano scholarship. He changed career to work as a print and radio journalist on Iberian and Latin American affairs in the era of Franco, Che Guevara, Salazar, Pinochet and Peron. Manu's mother's family originated in Bilbao in the Basque but she grew up in Paris. Her father was in the Republican army in the Spanish Civil War. His expertise was in explosives and his mission was to disrupt the communications systems of the Franco regime. Learning there was a bounty on his head, he chose exile over death, and raised his family in Paris.

In the suburb of Sèvres, home to a Renault factory, Manu grew up with friends whose families came from Tunisia, Morocco, Guadeloupe, Lyon, Marseilles, Cantabria, Bretagne. He pricked about in gangs and learned to rock 'n' roll in punky garage bands and Metro carriage busking troupes. He cites The Clash and Bob Marley amongst his influences. He now lives in Barcelona, spends a lot of time in South America. The band has absorbed music from all of these places and found a high energy, high optimism way of playing it.

His breakthrough band Mano Negra were huge in the '90s but perished on an ill-fated mission to restore a jungle railroad in Columbia. Yes, they've gone well off the beaten track, this lot. Manu went solo and his 2002 album Clandestino sold millions. His gigs have been legendary for years, the early energy, best captured on Mano Negra's 1990 film Pigalle, can still be summoned and transmitted.

She is Liberty
Ten minutes into the gig a thin young thing in a short sleeveless Bloom-on-Brown dress attempts to get up on to her boyfriend's shoulders. He is stocky, dressed for the terrace in a knock off Ireland soccer shirt. First attempt, she slithers off at his hip. Second attempt, she gets one foot on the shoulder before falling on her ass, legs akimbo, he spilled atop her. Bounding up, they look at each other, and shake their heads. She squirts a drink from the leather wineskin bag around her neck. She slaps him on the cheek, and kisses the other one. One more go. One more go! One more go-go, go go go!!

Stands behind him. He crouches. Left foot on left thigh, right foot on right thigh, her hands on his shoulders. He rises from his squat. Left foot on left hip, right foot on right hip, right hand on his head, left hand waving for balance. Steady. Left hand on his head, hair in his eyes, breathing heavy. Twenty of us flamenco-clapping trumpet-riffing wobble of encouragement surround them. 

Left foot on left shoulder, right foot on right shoulder, his hands anchoring her feet. She rises from her squat and stands aloft his shoulders. She towers over the Wellington Obelisk in the Phoenix Park yonder. Gazing past the roof of MOMA Dub at the RHK she surveys St James' Gate, Collins' Barracks, The Four Courts, The Abbey Theatre, Windmill Lane, Samuel Becket Bridge and Anna Livia Plurabella herself, spreading wide, open and willing, hungry for the world beyond the Poolbeg chimneys.

The girl in the Bloom-on-Brown extends her arms to bless the band, she anoints the crowd with oestro kisses. Against the dying light she raises hands high to the evening sky. She is Liberty, we salute her. She lifts her wineskin, pushes back her head and squirts her triumph deep into her mouth.

That horn section has some killer riffs. They bring them back in over and over, this gig is not so much a procession of songs but musical sections running into and inter-playing with each other. Riffs and beats re-appear unexpectedly. "King of the Bongo" revisits the same patterns as "Mr Bobby" but shifts in accent and arrangement keep things interesting under the vocal. It feels more like circus music or a film score than a typical set-listed show. 

The rhythm machine is strong and precise, they can upgear from sexy hipswivel reggae to feral punk-ska carnival in a beat. When they do upgear, the grass patch dance floor transforms into hot sweaty moshpit. Stags and bucks rush and bounce off each other. Chests and shoulders front up and collide, arms push and spin, eager knees hoist booted feet over fallen comrades. Converts dragged from the edge get initiated in the spin, dizzied and whirled into bliss. Eyes fill with laughter tears, a young man from Belfast shudders straight his supple spine and hops into the mix. A young woman stumbles and is helped up; another gets an elbow in the temple that will surely hurt tomorrow. 

Bedecked in 'spensive golden bling, on neck and wrist and finger, she hands her friend a sky blue leather jacket, an orange scarf, an apple phone. She backs in to the vortex, spins out and gets cast back around again. She screams and laughs and drags her friend in. The green woolen hat is pulled off and cast high. She spins into my arms and squeals. She swivels me into the scrum and i am mobbed by sweaty Spaniards. i end up thirty meters away, face in the grass with a man on my legs. As i get up, i see a green woolen hat and stash it. St Agnes, pray for me, i owe you two caminos.

The mosh-pit grows and grows, strangers embrace; assignations claimed and counter-claimed by glance and nod, by hand on hip and hand on hand. i could be at a pookah frenzy from the time before Newgrange. By the finale there's three or four prima moshpits within eyeshot, there must be a hundred bruises within a ten yard radius. The rain grows from a menacing drizzle, through some sparse, heavy drops to a soft continuum. The tops come off, dreads and bangles flying, the air smells of rat tobacco, moroccan hash and grow-room marajuana.

The biggest join-ins are for the Spanish language songs, like Clandestino. Everyone here knows every word. Me Gustas Tu (I like you) is punkier than the record and transformed into call and response between Manu and us.

Manu Chao: Me Gustas La Lluvia
Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band: Me Gustas Tu
Manu Chao: Me Gustas Volver
Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band: Me Gustas Tu
Manu Chao: Me Gustas Marajuana
Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band: Me Gustas Tu
Manu Chao: Me Gustas Colombiana
Manu Chao's Citizen Army Band: Me Gustas Tu

Politik Kills
Manu sings about Monsanto. Here Monsanto is synonymous with RoundUp, their branded glyphosate weedkiller. It leaves orange-brown dead vegetation in estates, gardens and ditches all over. Studies have linked it with cancer, particularly non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Citizen campaigns to ban it are accelerating throughout Europe with success in France and Denmanrk.

But globally, Monsanto is synonymous with agricultural seeds -   genetically engineering seeds and patenting those seeds, thereby dominating the trade and distribution of seeds. This is what Sub-Commandante Chao refers to. This strikes a chord with me. It brings me back to my own encounters with Monsanto as we successfully kept Ireland free from Genetically Modified Organisms in the '90s. 

Neil Young's just released an album called The Monsanto Years. The eco-war is about to step up in intensity, an inevitable consequence of mass youth unemployment in this era of knowing and connecting. The challenge of revolutionary alchemy demands the conversion of information to action. Should i take a hint from these guys? Must i dust off my combats and sew on my epaulettes? Are the seeds of revolution germinated by the sweat of the dance?

Manu identifies with the global struggle against corporate capitalism and articulates concerns about its impact on environment and working people. Ticket prices were the cheapest of all the gigs at the venue this summer. He talks about missing people in Mexico and pounds out a heartbeat on his chest with the mic. We clap along, a simple prayer of solidarity for something we don't know much about. The Citizens' Army Band trusts their Director, he's earned that trust and loyalty.

Rainbow Carnevàle
Dublin's Mediterranean and South American communities have come out to play. They mingle with the denizens of Ireland's festival, club and world music networks. There must be a thousand people here i've met at fires and fundraisers and gigs and gatherings and meetings and demos and parties. Manu namechecks the flags in the audience near the end of the show - Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Palestine, Basque, Galicia, Zapatista, Mexico, Venezuala, Ireland, Rainbow and more. 

This afternoon Dublin hosted a huge Pride march, the first since the same-sex marriage referendum the month before. Rainbow headbands, scarves and t-shirts are all over the place, lesbian couples hold hands and are affectionate. Cops discretely patrol the perimeter, noses upwind of exotic fragrance, gossiping about overtime and tomorrow's game in Croke Park. A stout ganj-eyed redhead lad in tweed sports a champion flame-beard. Using plastic wand he draws fairy bubbles from his oxter to impress the laydees. "Bubble?" he asks, "Bubble?" Stoned redbull chickas bounce high to burst his bubbles in Casa Babylon. Boy's gonna score, defo.

The instruments get passed around. A southside hipster with an African girlfriend batters an endangered drum-stick sloppy out on the plastic cowbells. The owner shakes his head in mock disapproval. He hugs the hipster, retrieves the implements and gives them to the girlfriend. She feigns a shyless yet pecks away, proper rhythm mama in the flash of a Catalan eye. The girl with the red carnation in the gypsy black curls shimmies over to reclaim him, just in the nick of time. i return the green hat to the girl with the orange scarf. She jumps into my arms and squeals, louder than a horny horn section on steroids.

I catch a rare glimpse of the stage. Gambeat on the left, cheerleader, bass player, special effects and continuity dubster. Manu beside him, vocals and guitar. Between Manu and lead guitarist Madjid, my aerial friend in the sleeveless Bloom-on-Brown. She's swaying beside Mr Chao. I don't know how she got there, but there she is, centre-stage, facing west over the thousands, beyond the Pale, past Brigid's Well and Uisneach. 

A roadie comes to lead her off-stage. Manu ushers him away, he puts his arm around her mid-song for a second. She puts a branded blue water-bottle on her head, stretches out her arms. The bottle falls off. She puts it on again, it balances. She squats down 'til her ass is near the ground, outstretched hands grasping the Angels of Kilmainham to steady her balance, her grace being more earth-warrior than ballerina. The bottle stays on. She repeats the feat 'til the end of the number then consents to an escort off the stage.

The clock's running down. The fiesta brass riff from "L'hiver est là" gets recycled over and over atop the minor tonic and major dominant chords:
L' Lo, L' Lo, 
L' L' L' L' L' L' L' L' 
L' Lo, L' Lo, 
L' L' L' L' L' L' L' L' 
L' Lo, L' Lo, 
L' L' L' L' L' L' L' L' 
L' Lo, L' Lo, 
L' L' L' L' L' L' L' L' 

The stage sound gets cut off at the contracted hour, 10:30. The band come back out regardless to show their appreciation. i glide out the arena through the ranks, shuffling past gates on to wide open streets, each step certain, graceful and true. I get into the bike taxi with Josephine and Frida, Lucia and O'Casey. Take us to a dive by the docks, maňana we sail for Galicia. Rainbow Carnevàle, Manu Chao and his Citizen Army Band. Best gig ever.

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