An Evening With Ramon

Ramón Chao talks about his adventure in Colombia with Mano Negra at the book launch of The Train of Ice and Fire. In Spanish with English subtitles. Originally published on a now defunct video server, we’ve decided it’s high time it came back online.

Colombia, November 1993: a reconstructed old passenger train is carrying one hundred musicians, acrobats and artists on a daring adventure through the heart of a country soaked in violence. Leading this crusade of hope is Manu Chao with his band Mano Negra.

Manu’s father Ramón Chao is on board to chronicle the journey. As the papa of the train, he endures personal discomfort, internal strife, derailments, stowaways, disease, guerrillas and paramilitaries. When the train arrives in Aracataca, the real-life Macondo of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, Mano Negra disintegrates, leaving Manu to pick up the pieces with those determined to see this once-in-a-lifetime adventure through to the end.

The Train of Fice and Fire

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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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Culitrenzado – A Literary Donkey

Culitrenzado

Ramón Chao’s contribution to the canon of literary donkeys. This extract from his novel Because Cuba is You introduces Culitrenzado (plaited-arse), a Galician donkey.  

Old man Graciano has returned to his native Galicia following a life lived in Cuba and he has fallen love with young Loliña. He has set up a shop – The Chao Grocery Store – from which he sells exotic wares imported from Cuba. But when the people stop coming to the shop and the goods start to rot, Graciano decides to take his wares to the people. And for this, he needs a donkey to pull the cart. Enter Culitrenzado…

WHEN THE NOVELTY wore off and the visitors’ amazement palled, nobody gave the Chao Grocery Store another glance; its decline began almost as soon as it opened.

‘You’ll see,’ insisted Graciano. ‘These country bumpkins are used to shrunken apples and rachitic pears from San Juan, they’re not going to suddenly eat guava and mango. We have to get them used to these novelties.’

While she lay listlessly amongst the vegetables, he bankrupted himself importing exotic wares. The well was overflowing with merchandise that came all the way from Cuba only to be attacked by worms in the back of the shop. Even the animals turned up their snouts, and most of most of them were pigs.

A brilliant idea occurred to Graciano, however, after a short period of bickering and an immediate new outbreak of love.
‘If those yokels don’t come to the shop, we’ll take it to their villages.’

No sooner saddled up, than off on the trail. An inner spring propelled him into the stable of Culitrenzado, an ass of lean flanks and broad nostrils, tamed by distant gypsies who had sheared his haunches in arabesque patterns and platted his tail. He had two saddlebags, one for barley, and one for chorizo for his fellow travellers. Phantom soliped, invisible shadow of improbable donkey as light of body as of movement, he stood on his four legs by a pure miracle of levitation and weighed so little that he left no trace on the ground. He appeared and disappeared like the clouds and the spirits of the Santa Compaña: an ascetic, a dream become bones; a fakir who lived by fasting, his only food served up by providence.

Despite his noisy tuberculosis and his evanescent decrepitude, he was used to pulling carriages and flew along like straw in the wind, spurred on by a flick of the whip.

In a corner of the shed stood the rusting passenger vehicle, green with red stripes, that Graciano got out for baptisms, weddings and funerals. That very same day, he dusted it off, greased the axles, and oiled the harnesses.

In those early days, the shadows that clouded the splendour of my feelings did not worry me. Graciano was an affectionate companion, and our love was consolidated in the intimacy of our walks, hand in hand under the vines. A pity that sometimes nerves do not easily submit to the forces of reason!

WHAT A CARNIVAL THE VILLAGERS put on at the sight of their very first cavalcade! A crowd from all over the county gathered in the main square, attracted by this magnificent and unusual spectacle. Young people came dressed in luxurious multicoloured clothes and wearing their grandmothers’ jewellery, which knowledgeable souls valued at several measures of bran, and even then they thought they had underestimated.

The procession set off. Leading it, were two bands. Barely stopping for breath, they blew out their cheeks as they tried to get the music right on their metal mouthpieces. In front of the donkey walked twelve children dressed as slaves, in two rows of three, one on the right and one on the left. Two held the ribbons attached to the caparison. The rest brought up the rear. Following them, came groups of villagers, and also some outsiders, all in typical local dress.

Culitrenzado dropped his ears a little to look at himself in the puddles. He advanced along the riverbank moving his head from side to side with aplomb, with no fear of mistaking the way. He would take his time, because slow is the pace of a donkey often led down bad paths (after all, what abbess or clergyman ever mounted a donkey?). Now and then, a mule would come up to him, attracted by the smell of the quadruped. But he, whom all the young colts of the Sancobad hills had not persuaded to take a wrong turning, received them with bared teeth and bridle, without altering his pace.

At first I got up in the driver’s seat under the awning. I was astonished to see a beast of burden so intuitive and sure of itself. I told Graciano to use the reins and he laughed in a Cuban sort of way: ‘Don’t be silly, Loliña. Culitrenzado doesn’t need anyone to tell him where to head for!’

THE REAR PART OF THE WAGON sported shelves stacked with bunches of herbs and drawers full of spices. On the counter, covered with a cloth, stood medicinal plants – celandine, euphorbia, marshmallow, hollyhock and the seven herbs of Umbanda to combat envy – and lots of bottles containing all sorts of ointments and elixirs. To cap it all, Graciano put an astrolabe on the counter and dressed up like an oriental fortune teller.

Seeing the splendiferous carriage and the elegant donkey make their entrance was quite a sight. The whole village rushed to admire the graceful Loliña and the novel merchandise. As they flocked to the elaborate stall, Culitrenzado began braying to the four winds and the echo attracted a multitude of local farm workers. Although the sound might not have been to the taste of music lovers, avid as they are for harmony, it was appreciated in certain quarters. Despite its dissonance, farmers recognised Culitrenzado’s way of expressing his amorous longings; he was hungry for love after his long journey, and that hunger inspired respect. And like any good male, his cry was much more plaintive than the female of the species. The men of the county tried borrowing his braying for their own amorous declarations, as had been the case in the past: from some of Pliny’s writings we can see that in Roman amphitheatres men were hired to imitate braying. While they may have been the first to discover the art of braying, others would perfect it as Apuleius recounts in the Golden Ass and Cervantes in his Don Quixote.

In vain they did not bray
Both the mayors, they
Because Cuba is You

Because Cuba is You by Ramón Chao
Translated by Ann Wright

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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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Free Books With Songlines

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Pick up a copy of Songlines Magazine (Jan/Feb 2013) in WH Smiths from 7 December and there will be a free Route book attached to it. Either The Train of Ice and Fire or Away From the Light of Day. Here’s  a little information on the books and a few film clips.

The Train of Ice and Fire

Colombia, November 1993: a reconstructed old passenger train, bespangled with yellow butterflies, is carrying one hundred musicians, acrobats and artists on a daring adventure through the heart of a country soaked in violence. The intention is to put on free shows for locals at railway stations along the way: vibrant spectacles involving music, trapeze, tattoo-art, an ice museum and, star of the show, Roberto the fire-breathing dragon. Leading this crusade of hope is Manu Chao with his band Mano Negra.

Ramón Chao is on board to chronicle the journey. As the train climbs 1,000 kilometres from Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast to Bogota in the Altiplano, Ramon keeps one eye on the fluctuating morale of the train’s eccentric cargo, and the other on the ever-changing physical and social landscape. As the papa of the train, he endures personal discomfort, internal strife, derailments, stowaways, disease, guerrillas and paramilitaries. When the train arrives in Aracataca, the real-life Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mano Negra disintegrates, leaving Manu to pick up the pieces with those determined to see this once-in-a-lifetime adventure through to the end.

The Train of Ice and Fire is a book about hope and dreams in troubled times. It is about a father accompanying his son through an experience which will change his life. But most of all it is about Colombia, the flora, the fauna, the history, the politics and, more than any of that, it is a book about people.

Foreword by Ignacio Ramonet. Translated by Ann Wright

Here’s both father and son talking about the trip.

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Away From the Light of Day

The magic couple Amadou and Mariam are one of the most loved and successful acts to come out of Africa this century, but their story is not one of overnight success. They have been singing their warm notes for more than thirty years.

This autobiography traces Amadou’s early years in Mali, first accepting his blindness, then adapting, to finding a source of joy in music and playing alongside some of the country’s leading musicians. On meeting Mariam at an institute for the blind in Bamako, he discovers they share a passion for music and for life, they fall in love and begin their career as a duo in search of an international stage.

Away from the Light of Day is an inspiring story which reveals the source of this golden duo’s contagious music, threading its way between tradition, religion, hope and superstition.

‘I don’t think there’s ever been a band from Africa with whom people have engaged in quite such a way.’ – Damon Albarn

‘The fizziest afro-pop blues ever bottled.’ – Observer

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Click here to order Away From the Light of Day at a discount direct from Route

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