The air was filled with feverish anticipation on Monday night in the Annenberg Auditorium. Voices buzzed with excited conversation against the sizzling music pumped out by the sound system.
Everyone awaited the arrival of the night’s speaker, whom associate professor of communication Josh Kun, a co-founder of Annenberg’s Distinguished Lecture Series, would interview.
As Carlos Hernandez, executive director of USC’s Latino Student Assembly, presented an introductory speech, the event’s main contenders entered through the side door. Kun eagerly led the way to the stage, followed by the evening’s focus of attention, genre-defying musician Manu Chao.
Kun began with simple questions for Chao about his background, giving some insight for those uninitiated into his history.
Chao is a world-renowned musician of Galician and Basque heritage (two distinct regions of Spain), despite being born and raised in Paris. His parents often had impassioned South American political refugees over for Sunday dinner, which, along with living in a bilingual home, profoundly affected young Chao’s view of national identity.
He explained that he prefers to pursue an identity that mixes cultures and creates an amalgam of customs and traditions rather than the singularity of just one country.
When asked by Kun to elaborate on what it means to be a “good Spaniard,” Chao rejected the idea of clinging to just one cultural identity and gave a response that would quickly become a trademark of the evening: “I don’t know.”
Chao often claimed to not know something before starting in on a lengthy explanation, where he seemed to slowly discover that he did in fact know and only needed a little more time to find the right words.
For Chao, finding the right words to describe an emotion or circumstance was vital in every response.
“If you have one, two, three sentences and can’t find the fourth, stop,” he said when asked where he finds inspiration for his music. “Don’t force it, let it flow.”
And in Chao’s case, language certainly flows with ease. During the interview with Kun, his answers seamlessly shifted between English and Spanish, with a healthy dose of Italian and French phrases for an extra kick. As Kun also pointed out, Chao once said, “To speak only one language is to not speak another.”
It quickly became evident that language, in its numerous forms, plays a huge part in Chao’s creative process. Throughout the conversation, Chao’s anecdotes and political opinions thrived on the diversity both in his life and in the world. He repeatedly expressed his belief that society’s greatest downfall is its tendency to construct separation, which hinders us from learning about each other and creating a stronger global community.
Live shows, Chao said, are a way for him to inspire the audience to take part in the music and create a larger community of people simply enjoying art. When footage of a recent concert was shown, every member of the on-screen audience was smiling or dancing, looking as if they had just come from a carnival festival.
To shed light on Chao’s progression as a musical innovator, Kun and Chao began to discuss the bands with which he performed. In the mid 1980s, he formed Les Hot Pants, during which the artist took inspiration from English rock ’n’ roll such as The Clash, along with cultural music icons such as Cuban singer Bola de Nieve.
During these early years, the band mainly sang in English, which Chao explained was because they believed rock ’n’ roll music sounded best when written for the language in which it had been conceived.
One important opinion about the fusion of language and music that Manu upholds to this day is that language should not be used as a means to speak to a specific audience. Instead of viewing language as merely a tool, Manu demonstrated — through an impromptu performance of “Bienvenida a Tijuana” — that it’s the medium through which raw emotion can be conveyed to any audience, even if the exact dictionary definition is lost in translation.
Chao later formed Mano Negra, which became an outlet for his burgeoning desire to experiment with musical genres and a chance to mix diverse styles that had previously been separated. Again, he took the chance to reiterate that separation even exists in music and once the barriers are eliminated, truly inspired art can be created.
Almost every detail that Chao told in a story or spoke about when prompted by Kun or the audience somehow related to the idea of unity through cultural appreciation and synthesis. Chao advocated an outlook that is aware of other cultures, thereby enhancing individual growth through knowledge and an ability to “find your own autonomy.” After a career filled with passionate dedication and subsequent success, Chao knows he is a lucky man.
“Luck can stand right next you and you can grab it, but if you haven’t worked hard you’ll get burned,” he said.