Released in 1998 and followed up in 2000 by its “little sister” Próxima Estación: Esperanza, Manu Chao’s Clandestino turned the former front man of cult Latin rock band Mano Negra (1987/1995) into a global superstar. In total contrast with the high-octane punk-rock of Mano Negra, the solo and all-acoustic album mixed various musical styles with reggae-influenced rhythms, bittersweet lyrics in several languages with spoken word sound bites while interweaving collages of electronics samples with stripped-down guitar and a brass section.

Manu Chao - Clandestino (1998)
Manu Chao – Clandestino (1998)

In Clandestino – In search of Manu Chao, British journalist Peter Culshaw sheds a very interesting light on the “gestation” period of the ground-breaking album whose ideas matured over the previous decade.

Peter Culshaw:  Clandestino - In search of Manu Chao (2013)
Peter Culshaw: Clandestino – In search of Manu Chao (2013)

Two significant tours in South America with Mano Negra definitely made a lasting impression on Manu Chao and further influenced his music and his travel destinations. In 1992, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America, Mano Negra embarked on a now legendary four-months “Cargo Tour” together with three other French street theatre, dance and mime companies. The party sailed around and performed in 8 ports and 40 cities across 15 countries including the Dominican Republic and Cuba where the singer has family roots. And then in 1993-1994, a train ride brought Mano Negra deep into rural Columbia at the end of which the band eventually split up.

During those formative tours, the musician came across politically and socially unstable countries suffering from the growing economic impact of globalisation. He made contact with and heard the plight of migrant workers, indigenous peoples, landless movements and various revolutionary groups across the Southern American continent, including the nascent Zapatista movement in Mexico (which led to subsequent meetings with Subcomandante Marcos and the inclusion of some of his speeches on Clandestino).

Combined with the constant urge of travelling on between Mexico, Brazil, Senegal, France and Spain in the years following the demise of Mano Negra, Manu Chao the “desaparecido” nevertheless kept writing fragments of songs and recording samples on the road with a portable device. All these influences eventually coalesced in Clandestino.

Even a bit of magic had some part to play in the genesis of the album as a technical glitch is responsible for the all-acoustic nature of Clandestino:

In the end, it was an accident that made up his mind and changed the course of the album, his career and his life. The audio software on Letang’s computer [his sound engineer] developed a bug which accidentally stripped out the electronics and drums, leaving the music naked, spare and beautiful.  It was like an old painting covered in layers upon layers that had been stripped bare to reveal a masterpiece.

As well as that:

When it came to decide on the final versions, Manu and Letang played them to the children of some Sèvres neighbours who were aged three, five and six. “The ones the children liked were the one we chose” Manu claims.

Both quotes from Peter Culshaw’s Clandestino – In search of Manu Chao

A personal favourite remains the song “Mentira” which really captures nicely the enchanting nature of Clandestino’s sound collages – Politically-charged lyrics over downtempo and reggae beats, Spanish guitar and radio samples reporting on the 1997 Kyoto convention on climate change.

The song also beautifully features a sample from “La Llorona”, a traditional Mexican song based on a legend from the Oaxaca state. The song has been covered by countless singers including Chavela Vargas, Lila Downs and Joan Baez. The exact song sampled is available on YouTube as performed by a band called “Que Viva la Huasteca” but there is very little else information.

Constantly touring over the next few years with his live band Radio Bemba and without any major promotion, the music of Clandestino slowly gained worldwide recognition through word of mouth, generating a surprising global buzz in the process and turning Manu Chao into an emblematic figure of alternative globalization and a champion of social justice.