I first came across Manu Chao exactly sixteen years ago, at which point I’d already been listening to Momus for around the same amount of time. Momus was an ever-present in the UK music press of the late 80s- early 90s*, and as for Manu, it was (appropriately enough for someone of my lifestyle and worldview) the Guardian that alerted me to his existence, in summer 2001. The article focussed on how surprisingly little-known he was in the English-speaking world, given what a superstar his album Clandestino had made him elsewhere, and also mentioned that its follow-up was coming out later that week. Just as it happened, he was also playing a free outside gig in Lisbon (where I lived at the time) the very same weekend. I bought and immediately loved both CDs and two days later found myself in the midst of billowing clouds of weedsmoke bouncing up and down next to the Torre de Belém for three hours (while ignoring the disparaging comments from my friend Andrew about ‘fucking crusties’). Manu himself was leaping around on the stage 200 metres away, wearing an Algerian football shirt and kicking footballs into the crowd with seemingly boundless euphoria and energy. I was enamoured.
Although in the ensuing years Momus has released sixteen albums of consistently excellent original material and Manu Chao (who was previously part of the group Mano Negra) has put out just two**, the two artists have much more in common than being born just one year apart and possessing a shared penchant for unconventionally colourful and extremely baggy trousers. In both cases they have a level of creative energy that seems to increase exponentially with the years. Theirs is making as a mode of being, reminding me of the line from Fernando Pessoa – “I get distracted and start doing something”. It’s also, in both cases, entirely impossible to predict what they might do next. This year Manu has been posting, from who knows where, new songs (hooray!) which are a collaboration under the name of Ti.Po.Ta) with a Greek actress/singer called Klelia Renesi, while Momus has been traversing Europe by train switching between being David Bowie and various versions of himself.
On the sleeve of ‘Radiolina’ (2007) there was a reference to ‘permanent summer’. Manu seems to be always on the move, from Barcelona to Bayonne to Bogotá. He says of himself that ‘my one luxury is travel’. Both he and Momus migrate instinctively towards similar scenes and people, but while Momus is more likely to pop up at art fairs and residences, Manu is an organic superstar, an incessantly mobile global troubador. The lifestyles of both artists are thus a rebuke to Theresa May’s tiny-minded denunciation of ‘citizens of nowhere’. Their lives and work are a celebration of mobility and migration. Wherever you happen to be on the planet there is an outside chance than one or the other will at some point soon be entertaining people at the end of your street***. Youtube abounds in videos of Manu playing in cafes, strumming and carousing while walking down the street and doing the entertaining at an actual children’s party. Momus’ gigs consist of him and his laptop, so they share a spirit of ‘let’s do the gig right here!’. While Momus’ gigs are spellbindingly intense and entertaining, Manu’s concerts are characterised by exuberance. If you’re at all into bouncing round your living room, whether alone, with friends, or with a newborn baby in our arms, his live albums are a must.
The border-flouting approach of both Manu and Momus is reflected in their linguistic eclecticism. Manu has sung in Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Arabic as well as English, French and Spanish; often he just mixes it all up in what what Diego Marani calls Europanto, often based around Manu’s own idiosycratic international take on English rock n’roll grammar. Sometimes his lyrics sound like stoned nonsense. His core audience is, after all, weed-addled Spanish perroflautas, punkabbestie italiane and French whatever-the-French-word-for-crusties-is. One thing the two artists have in common, lyrically just as much as musically, is inventiveness. Interestingly, in French Manu’s lyrics have a less wacky, more literary bent. Momus is consistently erudite but, with his history of having been big-in-Japan, has a mastery of International English and a strong appreciation of the absurdity and ambiguity of the pop idiom. He’s also a pioneer of using google to write songs in other languages and (akin to Michel Houellebecq) basing lyrics on Wikipedia entries. In a recent interview about his approach to lyric-writing, he talked of using a Burroughsian cut-up approach; not too dissimilarly, Manu’s lyrics often appear to be the result of a collage.
While Manu has lived in Brazil and currently (I think) resides in Barcelona, Europe’s most Latin American city, Momus, after floating between London, Paris, New York and Berlin, has gravitated towards Asia and is now based in Osaka, ‘Japan’s most working class city’. Given that Momus has never visited Latin America, it’s tempting to think of he and Manu as covering different parts of the planet. That may carry colonialist implications -and it is worth noting that as white European men their access to mobility is enhanced – but few make such use of it, and neither is unaware of the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation. As noted, they share an interest in and are advocates of free movement. as a corrective to nationalist and imperialist worldviews. Their magpie approach to sampling is not the mere cultural appropriation that at least one artist of their generation has been accused of. Both reuse source material with irreverence, treating culture as a living, fluid thing rather than a collection of solid museum artifacts. Theirs is not the globalism of Starbucks with its slogan ‘culture is just a flavour’. Hence they have both produced snarling critiques of neoliberalism, the notion of human society as a conveyor belt which stamps price tags on everything it doesn’t simply discard. One of Manu’s most recent tracks is called ‘No solo en China hay futuro’ – it’s not only in China that there’s a future. Their refutation of the conveyor belt world view lies in the fact that they are both fascinated by what has been or stands to be discarded.
Both Momus and Manu Chao tracks are instantly recognisable as such, despite their catholic approach to borrowing sounds. Momus has invented some genres and pastiched others and ended with something which is absolutely distinctive. Manu’s music combines head-down boogie with ska, funk, punk and reggae; both show a laudable disregard for copyright. Another feature they share is artistic promiscuity, with a constant eye for collaborations. While Momus has made albums with Anne Laplatine and as part of Joemus and MomusMcclymont, Manu has shared his creativity with Amadou et Mariam and (more recently) Calypso Rose. They both make exemplary use of the internet to try out and diffuse new ideas****. There’s also something similar in form and mood about Momus’ hearspools and Manu’s ongoing work with Radio La Colifata, in which he riffs and quotes from his own music. Both artists also continuously remake old songs for new performances.
There’s also a sense of generosity, not just promoting other artists but also causes. Manu very regularly lends his support to campaigns against GM farming and fights against mining extraction. Momus is definitely not a protest singer (or, it’s important to point out, very much not a crusty) but can, I think, be regarded as an intellectual engagé. Both produced relatively impromptu songs in relation to referendums in Scotland and Greece; late last year Momus released an album lamenting Brexit, while just a few weeks ago Manu (who was born in Paris) posted a short clip against Le Pen.
Both artists have taught me a huge amount. Many people said of David Bowie that he was a sort of proto-google, in that through him fans discovered other artists, writers, etc. Momus’ pedagogical role is now semi-official, in that he has, after a fashion, opened his own university. As for Manu Chao, it was mostly él que me ensenó el casteyano. Gracias, Manu. Cheers, Nick.
*Although his music wasn’t always appreciated by the morons there employed.
**Here is five hours of unreleased material from Manu Chao; you can listen to and/or watch many of Momus’ last few albums here.
***Apart from Mexico, where Momus has never been and from where Manu Chao is apparently banned.
****To get a good sense of what Momus is drawing upon nowadays this is an excellent listen.