Photo by Youri Lenquette

Since the breakup of his band Mano Negra in 1994, the road has been Manu Chao's studio. Armed with a portable recording unit and a few instruments, the former creative center of the French-Spanish globo-punk group has spent large chunks of time in Spain (his anti-Franco parents' native land), Mali, Senegal (his girlfriend lives there) and Latin America (some of his best friends are Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican), seeking la cultura de la calle — street culture. He has recorded dozens of songs during his travels, 16 of which find a home on his solo debut, Clandestino (Ark 21).

Some of these spontaneous musical combustions were written, recorded and mixed in one day. Minimalist yet cleverly multitracked, intimate yet celebratory, the Latin- and Caribbean-flavored tunes frame Chao's activist melancholia with a healthy dollop of leering, loopy satire. Strummed acoustic guitar, cheap electronica and pleading vocals mostly in Spanish make up the main musical ingredients. Dozens of multilingual samples lifted from TV, radio, old records and nature — from first cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin to Commandante Marcos of the EZLN to the eerie wail of the wind — give Chao's song cycle a sense of the rootlessness of a vagabond troubadour who struggles to remember snippets of current events and crass local commercialism.

“This record has been recorded, accidentally, everywhere in the world,” explains Chao in street-fluent English. “When I find a new song, I've got the possibility to record it immediately . . . maybe the first idea comes from talking with a friend or somebody in the street. I'm really happy to be creative, but it's dangerous if you don't finish in the moment,” an allusion to his first couple of years on the road, when he recorded several albums' worth of material and says he was “too disorganized” to pull it together into a finished product.

Given the rootsiness of much of Clandestino, techno's hidden influence comes as a surprise. Chao started his love-hate relationship with the 160-bpm beast a few years ago when he lived in Spain, entranced by its consciousness-altering beats and drawn to the scene's democratic nature. One can imagine electronic-thump-thump early versions of the title track, “Por El Suelo” and “Il Dia Luna . . . Dia Pena,” then Chao removing the digitalia and letting his guitar carry the groove. But behind the trance he sees anomie, the isolation found in nightclubs full of paranoid people who don't talk to each other, losing themselves in relentless waves of overamplified rhythms. “I think techno's too much the music of no future, more no-future than punk,” says the former punk. “I'd like to make techno with soul,” something he may pursue on his next album, including possible collaborations with Congolese expatriate and renowned global-music fusioneer Ray Lema.

Chao's road tenure has intensified his pessimism. “The more I travel, the sadder I get,” he says. “Things are more difficult, more complicated.” Each time he returns to visit his friends in various countries, he finds more people living on the streets, and the despair and violence grinding ever louder, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and slums of Bogotá and Dakar to the metropolises of Paris and Madrid. He chants “Todo es mentira en este mundo” (“All is lies in this world”) in “Mentira” and again in “Luna y Sol.”

Although he carries what he calls a “passport of gold” from France, Chao is acutely aware of Third World people trying to find work abroad and being stymied by strict European and American immigration laws, and puts some of his feelings into “Desaparecido” (“Disappeared”) and the title track. His disdain for national boundaries and institutional and personal racism also explains in part his fascination with that poster child of border cities, Tijuana. He has visited there several times and eulogizes the town, with tongue in cheek, on “Welcome to Tijuana” (“Welcome to Tijuana/tequila, sexo y marijuana“). “It [Tijuana] is like a summary of all the problems,” he says. “If the First World doesn't want the Third World to 'invade,' then give them the opportunity to develop by themselves. The only ones who get something from all these problems is mafia, and Tijuana is a city of mafia.”

As much as any album in recent memory, Clandestino captures the ambiance of the road, of a caring man desperately seeking joy in the face of increasing misery, hopeful yet troubled by the dark forces that lie in wait.

LA Weekly