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


‘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

Clandestino - In Search of Manu Chao

Clandestino – In Search of Manu Chao
by Peter Culshaw

Published by Serpent’s Tail.

Free Books With Songlines


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.



Click here to order Train of Ice and Fire at a discount direct from Route

Prefer to buy on Amazon?: Hardback, Paperback and Kindle

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



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

Prefer to buy on Amazon: Paperback or Kindle

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.

‘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.

Click here for more on The Train of Ice and Fire

Ramón Chao – Tattoo

Ramon Chao will be talking about The Train of Ice and Fire at the Colombiage Festival this weekend at the Riverside Studios in London. To mark the occasion we’ve released another clip from An Evening With Ramón, this one includes his story of getting a Mano Negra tattoo.

The event is Saturday, 17 October at 6pm. Click here for details.