BERKELEY — A loopy-looking fan with a wild Mohawk climbed onto the Greek Theatre stage Friday night and crept up on world-music icon Manu Chao, here to kick off his first U.S. tour in five years. The unsuspecting singer, who performs tonight at the Shrine, was delivering an exuberant show before a delirious audience when the weird interloper appeared to clutch him from behind.
This being Berkeley, a wary security man made only a timid attempt to stop the fan, perhaps worried about sparking a free-speech incident. The hesitant guard backed away when Chao, a diminutive figure onstage, awkwardly reached up with one arm to hug the hulking but harmless admirer, who eventually slinked off by himself.
The moment was not unusual for a concert like Chao's, amped up on frenetic punk energy, entrancing reggae grooves and sociopolitical fervor, all soaked in a pungent pall of marijuana that made you feel high by osmosis. But it must have been a nerve-racking moment for Chao's Paris-based managers. They had privately fretted about how the current political climate would play out for their outspoken client, who recently called President Bush the world's most dangerous terrorist.
Whatever the risk, Chao wasn't holding his tongue on this tour. At one point he unfurled a red Zapatista flag in support of Mexican rebels in the state of Chiapas. At another, he delivered a sharp rebuke of "politicians that say lies, lies and more lies."
"They say we must fight violence with violence," he continued in heavily accented English. "That's not true. We must fight violence with education."
Not exactly a ringing slogan for someone considered a pop music messiah. But it showed that the activist artist, now 45, has not mellowed with age.
"The problem is that the more I mature, the more the world becomes unjust," Chao said in an interview before the show. "So my spirit of searching for a solution to create a world that is more balanced and fair for everyone grows more vital with every day."
Well into middle age, this elusive, almost mythical musician remains one of the most influential figures in what has come to be called world music, a term that aptly describes the goulash of styles he cooks up in Spanish, French and English. Chao hasn't had a new studio album in five years. He doesn't even have a record label, though he has three new albums in various stages of production. And he manages his career like he says he lives his life, day to day.
Still, despite his absence from the pop spotlight, thousands turned out to see him perform with his crack, raucous band, Radio Bemba Sound System, named for a slang term meaning gossip or word of mouth. On Friday, many in the ethnically mixed crowd sang along to songs from his two solo albums and from his work with Mano Negra, the pioneering Latin alternative band he formed in the mid-1980s and named for a historic anarchist group.
You could say that Chao needs to freshen his sound and his material. But what's the point? Nothing new is more thrilling or compelling than what he does.
"We're in a period that is musically very boring," the guitarist said in Spanish, seated on a couch in a softly lighted room backstage. "But I think we're at the bottom of a bad cycle. Which means that not long from now a new musical wave will emerge, I don't know from where. It could come from Monterrey or Bombay, from Rome or Kinshasa. But it's going to sweep away everything. For now, we're just waiting for the next new thing."
The return of Manu Chao makes the wait more bearable.
Chao is the son of Spaniards who fled Franco's fascist Spain. He was raised in Paris, where he found musical kinship with other immigrants, especially North Africans, many of whom drown trying to reach Europe. He recently produced albums by Malian duo Amadou & Mariam and by Akli D, a singer-songwriter from Algeria. This unique Algerian music is the latest style Chao has absorbed into his eclectic repertoire, informed by the brash spirit of The Clash, the rootsy groove of Bob Marley and the idealistic aura of Che Guevara.
That musical stew makes his music hard to define, and that's the way he likes it.
"The last thing I need to accomplish is to define myself," he says. "I have to continue growing and never be defined."
Perhaps by design, there's a certain disconnect between Manu Chao, the public figure, and Jose Manuel Chao, the person.
He's considered a protest singer but his songs are rarely overtly political. He's revered like a guru, but he's very down to earth. He has a reputation for being hostile to the press, but he was patient and accommodating with the curious media on this tour.
After sound check, he gave a formal news conference at the Greek, attended by about 15 Bay Area reporters, many young enough to be his children. Some swarmed him after the formal Q&A, holding out their notebooks to request autographs.