Don’t Mean To Bang On About Bongos

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Manu Chao, the modern Indian music fan and the banality of global music
The NH7 Weekender festival announced with a fair bit of fanfare that ‘world music superstar’ Manu Chao would be performing gigs across India this year. I wasn’t especially thrilled, partly because my working knowledge of him was as a French dude with dreads singing ‘…king of the bongo, king of the bongo…’ on MTV when I was 19.

Ignorant as I then was about the wider cultural connotations and camaraderie thus evinced with our Black brethren, this time round the lyrics reminded me, with a fair degree of consternation, of a certain UK Independence Party member’s unfortunate views on how Britain needs to stop sending money to ‘Bongo Bongo land’—by which he meant humanitarian aid to ‘third-world’ countries.

All this talk of bongos and White Rastas aside, Manu Chao acts as an interesting flashpoint. It’s not bongos I have a problem with. The new Arcade Fire has lots of bongos, and I venture it is all the better for it. What left me feeling bemused was the hysteria on social media over Mr Chao’s imminent performance in our country.

There are two simple reasons for this. First is that this superstar’s last seminal hit, the album Clandestino, was released fifteen years ago in 1998. Second is the undeniable presence of phenomenally talented and extremely current local acts, EDM or otherwise—and I say with absolute honesty and a fair degree of pride that some of the best EDM I have heard comes from India—that are received with far less excitement and support from our urban upper middle-class audiences.

This begs the question: will young affluent urban Indians accept any sort of ‘global superstar’ (and I use both words with a degree of discomfort)? Harsh as it is, could one go so far as to say that the listenership in question is a culturally vacant, musically-addled audience of cosseted trustafarians?

I gave Clandestino a listen. It certainly didn’t strike me as the new Bob Marley, as some critics raved, but by no means was the album especially egregious. Mano Negra, a now-cult band fronted by Chao from 1987 to 1995, is a different story altogether.

Genuinely iconoclastic, their sound is a manic hybrid of punk, flamenco, ska, Algerian raï, salsa, reggae and African percussion, with a Gogol Bordello-esque approach to performance that demonstrates the dynamism that genre-pushing ‘world music’ could bring to the mainstream. Boundaries have been pushed, sonically and geographically, with several projects such as the ‘Train of Ice and Fire’, Mano Negra’s tour of remote and hostile regions in several Latin American countries, including Columbia, which was then violence-ridden and at the height of its cocaine wars.

A German friend recalled seeing Chao at a festival in Europe in the early 2000s, backed by his subsequent and rather large band, Radio Bemba. She rated it one of the most vibrant and spirited shows she had ever seen. I wonder if his solo performance in Delhi could be so commended.

Chao’s solo work, commercially successful as it was, suffers in comparison, in spite of well-intentioned and indeed passionate narratives of political disenfranchisement and social alienation among those cast out and under the system. It lacks the earthy innovation and spiky energy that would have made him the global superstar he should have been. Any fan of Mr Chao ought to give a serious listen to Bongo Bong, a rendition of a track on the Mano Negra album King of the Bongos, as it’s a full-on rock track with a seriously groovy hook. And bongos, too.

There is a certain irony that our well-heeled Dilliwallas are so enthralled by this self-styled musical troubadour with his outspoken views on Capitalism and unequal political systems. But that is a moot point, as music is, and should be, for everyone. The point here is not to call into question the musical integrity of Mr Chao, nor is it to mock the musical sophistication—or lack thereof—of your average Delhiite. The point is that, as audiences, we perhaps shouldn’t settle for half-baked (no pun intended) excuses of performances by artists who clearly have the potential and musical chops to put on a show like no other.

Equally, as people who love and enjoy music, creating a vibrant and artist-friendly scene that will attract the gigs we deserve starts with supporting local acts, not just the minimal-techno-raver DJs and prog-rock ‘play your guitar like a sitar’ bands, accomplished as they no doubt are.

Some of the best music I have heard lately has been at small gigs in grotty bars and obscure venues, whether in London, Goa or Kampala. This makes me question the musical ethics of the global music industry at large, as it seems that nine of ten hit records are ersatz, banal and auto-tuned to death. Which is why we, its global consumers, fall upon even a whiff of apparent authenticity, expressed by bands such as The Black Keys and Kings of Leon, which, even if not particularly original, are at least not Justin Bieber. And that’s another reason why local scenes in cities are important, if nothing else: as an alternative to a global conspiracy of bad taste.