Train Journeys of Colombia

An extract from an article on Train Journeys of Colombia in Le Monde Diplomatique by Robin Oisín Llewellyn, which details Ramon Chao’s book The Train of Ice and Fire

A ship named Melquíades (after the wandering Gypsy in One Hundred Years of Solitude who brings telescopes, ice, and magic carpets to Macondo) was sailing around Latin America with the support of the French Government, loaded with circus performers from Royal de Lux and musicians from the then wildly popular punk-reggae band Mano Negra. The band’s singer Manu Chao noted the lack of any rail service in Colombia and resolved to return to reactivate a form of transport “so crucial to a country’s social and geographic fabric.”

By 1993 his band, together with many circus performers from Royal de Lux and a support band named French Lovers, had returned to Colombia, taken charge of a hurriedly restored train from the sidings of the Ferrovias depot outside Bogota, and were rumbling through territory fought over by guerrillas and paramilitaries to mount musical and spectacular extravaganzas at abandoned stations along the line to Aracataca. “The Train of Ice and Fire” was a locomotive and 21 carriages that, according to Manu’s father and journalist Ramón Chao who documented the journey, resembled “a load of bric-a-brac put together by inexpert but passionate hands.”

The expedition rejected all offers of an escort from the Army to the alarm of the French embassy, one of whom responded resignedly, “What can we do? It’s too late. I never thought this train would actually leave.” The Fire carriage was lined with asbestos and sheet metal, designed to burn in flames through the performances, while an ice wagon contained “the biggest diamond ever seen — a five-cubic-meter six-ton block of ice, pure and translucent like crystal.”

Then came a cage-wagon home to an enormous mechanical dragon cum flame-thrower, while the ice-wagon was a grotto in which a snowstorm would be unleashed when a “child-friendly sleepy polar bear” woke up. Other carriages housed trapezes for the circus acts, or the stages for French Lovers and Mano Negra.

By the time the train arrived at Aracataca after nightfall to a crowd of 2000 and a children’s choir singing the Marseillaise in Spanish, the Train of Ice and Fire had become the talk of Colombia after a string of widely reported concerts in the tumble-down stations along the line. The carriages had derailed numerous times on a line afflicted by years of neglect, but the musicians, circus actors, and staff from Ferrovias would simply crow-bar the carriages back onto the tracks and the train would slowly continue to another town, another concert-cum-extravaganza.

Awe-struck townspeople were unable to buy tickets for the events; instead they had to write down their dreams in order to gain admittance. The children were astonished by the ice sculptures, one little girl said the ice made her “skeleton tremble,” but it was Roberto the dragon who, according to Ramón Chao, fulfilled “the role played many years ago in Aracataca by Melquíades’ ice. “The young, and the not so young, open their eyes wide, go into ecstasies, scream blue murder, and recoil with fear every time Roberto sweeps the station with his piercing eyes and blows ten metres of flame, to a deafening crash of sirens and decibels.”

The concert in Marquez’s hometown was a success but marked the beginning of the end for Mano Negra with several band members leaving for France two days later, the tour still unfinished. Away from the train the violence of Colombia continued unabated. News of the killing of Pablo Escobar reached the train as it travelled from Bosconia to Gamarra, and the effects of sustained mass displacement were clear when the group reached Dorada in the coffee growing highlands.

The train would proceed all the way back to Bogota, with Mano Negra’s remaining band members having to use synthesizers to mimic those who had abandoned the adventure. The band would never reform. The promises of politicians to use the Train of Ice and Fire to regenerate the railways were not fulfilled: Ferrovias was liquidated in 2003 and while cargo is still moved along some lines, passenger services have never been restarted. Pablo Escobar’s death saw new gang wars emerge, and the rise of AUC paramilitaries backed by the military saw massacres increase to unprecedented levels.

The dreams that gained access for their authors to the concerts have been preserved:

My dream is that there will be no need for children or teenagers to go hungry. Obviously we have to have pain in our lives, but not so much. —Franklin Muñoz, 13

Pineapple, lemon, lemonade.
If you don’t love me why do you kiss me? —Damaris, 15

One of my biggest dreams is that there’ll be peace in Colombia, and to do that we have to stop the drug traffickers. As for me, I hope that when I’m eighteen I’ll have a good job so I can help other people and be a good person. —Illegible signature

I dream of travelling in a train. —Ana Gonzalez, 12

How beautiful Colombia would be without war! Here a man loses his life and leaves a wife and children. A rifle shot ends an existence, mothers cry for their children, wives cry for their husbands. No more wars, no more bombs, no more violence. Why does everything have to end with a rose on a grave? —Rita Santos, 24

>>Click here to read the full article

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‘Any band that ever moaned about the freshness of the backstage towels should read this book.’ – Word

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Clandestino – In Search of Manu Chao

Video: Manu Chao with The French Lovers in Colombia during The Train of Ice and Fire tour.

Route were delighted to discover that Peter Culshaw’s new biography, Clandestino – In Search of Manu Chao, is finally released. It’s the first substantial English language biography of Manu Chao.

The first half of the book is a traditional biography, chronologically outling Manu’s career, from the early days as a rocker in the outskirts of Paris, through the emergence of Mano Negra, the subsequent fallout and Manu’s development as an artist in his own right. We were pleased to see Manu’s father, Ramón Chao, featured throughout, always ready with his pearls of wisdon, and the book provides wonderful context for Ramón’s book The Train of Ice and Fire, which follows Manu on a mad adventure through Colombia in the dog days of Mano Negra.

The second half the book is a travelogue; where Peter Culshaw embeds himself in Manu’s caravan, and we follow them from Barcelona, New York, Argentina, the Algerian Sahara, Mexico, Paris, Brixton and Brazil.

Mano is presented very much as a neighbourhood guy, and throughout the book we see glimpses of his connections to neighbourhoods all across the globe. Much of Mano’s mission is told through the people and organisations he associates with. One such organisation is the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, with their charismatic spokesman, Subcommandante Marcos. ‘The Zapatistas were the first ones I came across who really explained the politics of globalisation to me, before the French intellectuals,’ says Manu. ‘And that the economy rules the world and politicians mean nothing. The Zapatistas have a good analysis of what modern society is and how it works. We felt very involved with them. The messages were the exact same things I was thinking, and there aren’t many examples of messages like that coming at you in the world. Also, they never said they were fighting for power, nor wanting to be President. They want dignity.’

Peter Culshaw was described by his friend Malcolm McLaren as ‘the Indiana Jones of world music’. His assignments have included hanging out with Central African pygmies and reports from the Amazon and Siberia. He has profiled many leading classical, world and jazz musicians for the Observer and Telegraph, as well as BBC radio. As a musician, he was signed in the 1980s to Brian Eno’s label and later recorded with the Buena Vista Social Club. He is currently music editor for theartsdesk.com.

Clandestino - In Search of Manu Chao

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Clandestino – In Search of Manu Chao
by Peter Culshaw

Published by Serpent’s Tail.

Because Cuba is You

The Origins of Magic Realism

With Because Cuba is You, Ramón Chao firmly places the origins of magic realism in his native Galicia; a fertile region in North West Spain with a rich tradition of superstition and sorcery. In a recent interview, Chao cited the Galician author Álvaro Cunqueiro as the first magic realist novelist, and reminded us that García Márquez drew the inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude from his grandmother, a Galician. Márquez himself recalls that his grandmother’s house was full of stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents and said that she ‘treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural,’ and was ‘the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality.’

In Because Cuba is You, Chao tells the story of his own Galician grandmother. In the introduction to his book The Train of Ice and Fire – in which he chronicles the exploits of the French rock group Mano Negra on a dangerous tour of Colombia (his sons Manu and Antoine were both members of Mano Negra) – Chao tells the following story:

 At home I’m considered a bit of fantasist, but my sons’ attachment to the people and music of Latin America confirms my suspicions: my paternal grandfather is not the one that figures in our family tree, but Mario García Kohly, minister in the government of Cuba’s first president Tomás Estrada Palma, and later Cuban ambassador to Spain. My grandmother left Galicia for Cuba, fleeing her quarrelsome drunken husband. She worked as a maid in García Kohly’s house and got involved with him.

García Kohly’s house was a meeting place for musicians and writers. The host himself wrote poems that didn’t make much of a mark, except for the words of the habanera ‘Tú’ that he wrote under the pseudonym Ferrán Sánchez. The composer Sánchez de Fuentes was a regular visitor to the house, and it was he who put the habanera to music. I deduce from all this that the ‘Tú’ in question, symbol of Cuban sensuality, was that beautiful warm Galician lady with blue eyes and rosy cheeks; my sons’ great-grandmother.

‘In Cuba, beautiful island of burning sun,
under its sky of blue,
adorable brunette,
of all the flowers,
the queen is you.’

The drunken husband who had stayed in Galicia, arrived in Havana one unfortunate day looking for his wife. And since the droit de seigneur brings with it the duty of protection, the man was found with a bullet in his head at the corner of Escobar and Galiano, in Old Havana. I imagine that in Cuba it wasn’t difficult for anyone with influence to order whatever he wanted. My father was born shortly afterwards. His strong likeness to García Kohly, according to a photo of the former ambassador in the Spanish encyclopedia, leaves my detective thesis in no doubt. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but astral calculations indicate that my father was conceived after my grandmother fled Spain and before the arrival of her wretched husband.

García Lorca said that to be a good Spaniard you have to have a Latin American dimension. My sons had discovered that in Paris. Manu reminded me not long ago that as teenagers, he and Antoine got into all sorts of mischief, but when they came home they’d meet someone like García Márquez, and that redressed the balance. I remember one of the first things Manu played on the guitar was a piece by the Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, and the first percussion instruments he and Antoine had were brought from Havana by Alejo Carpentier. For his part, Antoine was musical director of Radio Latina in Paris for a time and now produces Cuban music records, keeping close ties with the island.

The habanera ‘Tú’ ends with the line ‘Because Cuba is you’. This novel of that name is Chao’s homage to his grandmother, to Galicia and to his links with Cuba. By connecting cow pastures to sugar plantations, witchcraft to Santeria, the Independent Party of Colour to the Spanish Anarchists, Chao not only traces his own personal family line, but also a political line from the Spanish-American War to the Spanish Civil War. This is a rich and multi-layered tapestry of a story, populated by a mixture of imagined and real characters that include Diego Rivera, Puccini, Enrico Caruso, Eduardo Pondal, Evaristo Estenoz, Durruti and the dusty exhumed remains of Christopher Columbus.

One night, at a Santeria ceremony at a sugar plantation, the grandmother in the book is blessed with the power of ubiquity: the ability to be in two places at once. It is true that this could be seen as a magical realist device, but on reading Because Cuba is You, it could equally been seen as simply a piece of Galician storytelling.

Because Cuba is You


Because Cuba is You
by Ramón Chao
Translated by Ann Wright

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Train of Ice and Fire Review

A Review of The Train of Ice and Fire features in Candela, the newly launched magazine for Latin and Spanish lifestyle in the UK. candelalive.co.uk

‘Classic train journeys evoke certain romanticism.The Orient Express is associated with luxury and refinement, the Trans Siberian joins Europe with Asia and the Pacific Ocean, and the Palace on Wheels recreates a glorious past through Rajasthan in India.  The Train of Ice and Fire evokes none of these.

Of all the places where a great train journey can be done, Manu Chao chose a country where there are no running trains and the rail network is in ruins: Colombia. This eccentric adventure takes Manu Chao, his band Mano Negra, acrobats, tattooists, various other entertainers, Manu’s father – the chronicler – and Roberto, a fire breathing Dragon, through the heartlands of Colombia in a bric-a-brac train named La Consentida.

The sole purpose of the journey: to stop at abandoned stations and entertain for free the disenfranchised people who live close by. Descending from the Altiplano – 2,500 metres above sea level – to the Northern Coast of Colombia, passing through Aracataca the hometown of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the adventure took this group of artists through some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery in the world.

Ramón’s description of the various sights, the vegetation, mountains, valleys and so on, transmits a sense of wonder, almost a feeling of disbelief in front of such well hidden beauty. However, it was the people who they encountered that amazed them most. The journey turned into a splendid rendezvous of cultures and people; a bunch of French entertainers and the simplest of people in Colombia, but also the warmest and probably the more intrigued at seeing this bunch of French gypsies in their small towns. Ramón illustrates this beautifully by noting how a terrified Colombian girl asked him how French men make love…’

Click here for the full review on Candela magazine.

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