MANU CHAOAt the Auditorio Municipal, Tijuana, December 13; and at the Palace, December 14

Layered with maddeningly insidious melodies, serpentine acoustic guitars and an ongoing Greek chorus of dialogue sampled from obscure movies and revolutionary speeches, Manu Chao’s debut CD, Clandestino — the rock en español equivalent to Sgt. Pepper‘s — is a monumental album that’s seemingly been airing nonstop in European cafes and Latin American clubs since its release in 1998. So it was a bit of a shock when the always enigmatic Chao — whose only previous local appearance was with his old band, Mano Negra, at Club Lingerie in the late ‘80s — radically changed the arrangements to many of his most famous songs during last week’s concerts. Backed with furious precision by the nine-piece Radio Bemba Sound System, Chao transformed his ironic anthem “Welcome to Tijuana,” which has a haunting, loping dub groove on the CD version, into an uptempo reggae-ska hybrid. At the Palace, the tune came off as festive and celebratory, with a sarcastic trombone-pumped digression into “Tequila.”

The night before, under the echo-y dome of the Auditorio Municipal in Tijuana, the song was played even faster, with a more militant, site-specific anger. Chao sampled his own samples, placing them in fresh contexts, and added new music to familiar lyrics. The hooks to “Welcome” and “El Viento” were used as refrains that recurred in unexpected places in other tunes, and the overall mood was enchanting and joyous. Rather than being disappointed in Chao‘s Dylan-like reinventions of favorite songs, the audiences at both sold-out concerts went crazy, willing to follow him and Radio Bemba anywhere. Just about everyone at the Hollywood concert, even the people packed together at the bar, pogoed enthusiastically (and nonviolently!), the most intense dancing ever seen at the Palace. The kids in Tijuana were even wilder, demonstrating that scene’s notoriously literal twist on crowd surfing in which reckless “surfers” clambered up on a door-size chunk of wood that was held high above the swirling mosh pit by other dancers, who then tried to rock the surfers from their precarious perch.

There was a rumor that Subcomandante Marcos was in the house at the TJ show, which was easy to believe since Zapatista-defender Chao has visited Chiapas many times (Marcos‘ speeches are sampled on Clandestino), and because, let’s face it, how would anybody recognize the freedom fighter without his Zorro mask? Like his spiritual and musical influence Bob Marley, Chao uses the slinky riddims of reggae to exalt the downtrodden and confront the oppressors, with seamless elements of folk, punk and salsa. The song (of freedom) remains the same, even if Chao‘s singing specifically about the new refugee immigrants of Central America and North Africa. Other highlights: a jacked-up version of “Por el Suelo”; a new, atypically straight-ahead rocker called “Marijuana Boogie”; and his signature tune, “Bongo Bong,” in which Chao humbly and righteously declared that he’s the “King of Bongo.” No argument here.

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