Saturday, June 5, 2010

June 5: Manu Chao, "Merry Blues"

Artist: Manu Chao
Song: "Merry Blues"
Album: Próxima Estación: Esperanza
Year: 2001

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Though it is one of the most widely used terms in music, the genre of "world music" is also perhaps one of the most misleading and open-ended classifications.  While ideas like jazz and funk can be attributed to a comparatively specific sound, when one uses the term of "world music," it might be best described as "non-English" music.  Whether it is the brilliant rhythms of Africa or the fantastic flavors of the Caribbean, "world music" is simply a catch-all term that has very little use for those who love music.  However, there are a handful of artists who make a case for a more accurate use of the term "world music," as their sounds are so diverse that one can find traces of cultures from across the planet.  Mixing together rock, jazz, and many other styles, along with singing in a number of different languages, there are few musicians who more accurately represent a term like "world music" as one finds in the songs of Manu Chao.  Born to Spanish parents in Paris, over the years Manu Chao has released some of the most musically exciting records around as he fuses together punk, blues, and rock with the flavors of countless cultures from all over the world.  Teaming up with his backing band, Radio Bemba Sound System, his 1998 debut record was phenomenal, and he followed it up with an equally exciting and massive diverse album in the form of 2001's, Próxima Estación: Esperanza.  Filled with fresh sounds and an amazing energy, there are few songs that better exemplify everything that makes the music of Manu Chao so special than one finds in the albums' first song, "Merry Blues."

From voice samples to bright horns to wandering guitar to a fantastic rhythm, there is simply nothing else that sounds quite like "Merry Blues," and the song proves to be perfectly fitting of its title.  Each member of Radio Bemba performs brilliantly, and the overall mood on the song sets a fantastic tone which remains intact for the remainder of the album.  Truth be told, few artists from any genre have been able to create as uniquely upbeat and vibrant a sound as one finds here, and each element of the song adds another layer to this unparalleled mood.  The horns on "Merry Blues" stand as one of the songs' most important aspects, as their tone gives the song an almost Mariachi band feel, and this not only highlights Chao's Latin roots, but also gives the track a very organic feeling.  The guitar evokes the spirit of ska music, and the grooving rhythm it creates one of the most intoxicatingly wonderful musical moods that has ever been recorded.  The fact that there are looped vocal pieces that are intermixed with the music gives the song an almost hip-hop feel, and this, combined with the more "classic" sounds of the horns and guitar create a musical juxtaposition that one cannot find anywhere else in music.  "Merry Blues" winds around and has plenty of "hills and valleys" within the instrumentation, and it is one of the few songs of its time where one can feel the emotion come through so clearly within the music.  This aspect serves as a testament to the amazing level of musicianship within all of the players, as well as the level at which they connect as a group.

Within modern music, there are few singers who have as unique a voice as that of Manu Chao.  Whether singing in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, or a host of other languages, there is always a certain spirit within his voice that makes it obvious that he truly loves what he does for a living.  Furthermore, the songs of Manu Chao become even more unique when he seamlessly switches languages mid-song, and in many cases, you need not speak that language to understand, as the emotion with which he sings makes the idea behind the song quite clear.  It is this upbeat approach to the lyrics that again makes the song title fitting, because although the words are those of longing and loss, there is a underlying sense of "moving on" as well as a celebration of "what once was" that runs through the entire song.  On "Merry Blues," Manu Chao pens some of his finest lyrical love, and there are few who cannot relate to a line like, " many nights, with your shadow in my many nights, baby you whisper in my head..."  As he moves through the different sections of the song, one can easily picture the song being sung in a lonely room.  Yet the true magic behind the song is that one can just as easily imagine the song being played outside in a massive group of people, and this duality represents the magic that is the music of Manu Chao.  In "Merry Blues," he also gives a nod to some a few of lifes "vices," as the lyrics end with the refrain of, "...I know you like ah marijuana smokey..."

Though it is often used as nothing more than a "catch all" classification, the fact of the matter is, there are a handful of artists who blend together many different musical cultures to create something far more fitting of the term "world music."  Standing as an ideal example of this idea, as he mixes together everything from classical Latin sounds to electronic music and hip-hop, Manu Chao remains one of the most innovative and exiting musicians on the planet.  His sophomore release, 2001's Próxima Estación: Esperanza takes its name from a Metro stop in Madrid which translates into: "Next Station: Hope."  With this idea in mind, one can easily make the case that it is fearless musical pioneers such as Manu Chao that stand as the "hope" that modern music has a chance of moving away from the uninspired, stale state that is has become over the past decade.  Perfectly aligning fantastic horns, bouncing guitars, and multiple rhythms, the lead track off the record, "Merry Blues," is unquestionably one of the most truly joyous songs ever recorded, and it embodies everything that makes the music of Manu Chao so distinctive.  Topped off by Manu's soaring vocals and lyrics to which all can relate, and one can only wonder why the world as a whole has not turned him into one of the biggest stars on the planet.  Somewhat experimental, somewhat traditional, there are very few artists from any point in history that can compare to the extraordinary musical compositions of Manu Chao, and there are few songs that better represent this uniqueness than his 2001 single, "Merry Blues."

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