Friday, 13 March 2009

The Train of Ice & FIre by Ramon Chao

Below the main title on the cover of this book are the word ‘Mano Negra in Colombia’ but the band only play a minor part in this travelogue and actually break up about a third of the way through. The book’s cover also features the band’s singer Mano Chao, looking furtive, and he pops in and out of the narrative like a secondary character in a novel.
The Train of Ice & Fire was written by Mano’s father, Ramon, a Galician writer and journalist who has spent most of his life in Paris. As well as travel books he has written novels and broadcast from France for various Spanish-language radio stations.
Most people who come to this book will probably do so because of Mano Chao, who has gone on to pursue a hugely successful solo career in Europe and South America since the break up of Mano Negra in 1994.
The band were formed in the 1980s in France and combined punk, ska, reggae and Arabic sounds with elements of cabaret and stage theatrics. Chao sings in French, but more often in Spanish and pigeon English and because of his left-wing political idealism has often been compared to Joe Strummer and Mano Negra with the Clash.
I was only half-conscious of them when I lived in Spain in the early 1990s and to be honest didn’t take much notice of them at the time. It was only when I started buying their albums in the last six of seven years that I realised how of their material – being played in radios and bars – had formed the background music to my time there.
I first began to take a proper interest in Manu Chao in 2001 when I kept hearing the infectious track Me Gustas Tu on Spanish internet radio stations and bought the album Esperanza which in turn led me to its predecessor Clandestino. A couple of years later while travelling around South America it was Chao’s live album Radio Bemba Sound System which was my seemingly constant soundtrack and I eventually bought a copy in Buenos Aires.
The following year Sinead and I were among just a handful of Irish people among a pulsating mass of French and Spanish concert goers at the Point Depot in Dublin where Chao and his band played in energy sapping three-hour show. After that I started buying Mano Negra albums when I saw them – a Best Of…, Puta’s Fever and King of the Bongo. There is also an excellent DVD of the Radio Bemba concert which includes hours of extra footage following Chao in Spain, Italy and South America.
Although I came to Chao snr’s book as a fan of his son and expecting him to dominate the narrative I was not too disappointed. Ramon is fine, engaging writer whose whimsical, often deprecatory prose is filled with observations on human frailties, the group dynamics and a scathing criticism of the corrupt politics that have led to Colombia being one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
He had come to Colombia to accompany his sons Mano and Antoine (who also played with Mano Negra) on a train journey from the Caribbean coast of Colombia to its capital Bogota. Also on the train were acrobats, tattoo artists, a four-metre high fire-breathing dragon (constructed from scrap metal) and an ice museum.
The train is dominated by idealistic French people who want to bring a message of hope to isolated communities whose lives have been plagued by right-wing militias, Farc guerrillas, drug barons and government neglect. They plan to stop the train at remote stations along the way and set up their show but lack of finances, disorganisation, the threat of danger and personality clashed soon kick in and the idealism soon vanishes, along with many of the performers, including four members of Mano Negra.
Mano and his brother continue with a couple of other band members and improvise sets and jam with other musicians but the loss of the headline act leads to more disillusionment and further defections.
Ramon, a French/Spanish intellectual is an odd person but astute narrator to be travelling with with a bunch of anarchists and his observations are often interspersed with literary references – in particular Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
He is also a keen observer of nature and how the landscape changes as the train journeys from coast, through mountains and high planes.
The book is peppered with snapshots of Colombian history and socio-political analysis and how US foreign policy has impacted negatively upon it.
“Colombia is second only to the Netherlands in cultivating flowers. Not everything is coca. And in any case, here they say: ‘ we only produce coca because the Yanks snort it’. There’s tremendous anti-Americanism here, so much so that Colombians would like to turn their country into a vast coca plantation just to satisfy the suicidal urges of the gringos’. (P37)
When the train arrives in Barranca its hippy and punk passengers are wary about venturing too far – “They know there are neighbourhoods it’s best to avoid, that the town is swarming with groups whose mission it is to rid the streets of undesirables – the destitute, the unproductive… Tramps, the homeless, street kids, homosexuals, are killed in bloody night-time safaris.”
We are also given an insight into the folklore of the native Colombians who “believed in the order of the universe, in nature as the supreme being. Their priests told them the earth was ‘the mother of all races, men and their tribes’. For them the spirit – that they called Aluna – was everything and concrete and visible things were only symbols’.”
Ramon Chao reports how street kids and disillusioned adults are constantly trying to stowaway on the train and reprints messages left by those who came to visit the carnival – most of them crying out for peace in this violent country. And while he and the others are affected he is constantly aware that for the French travellers it is a transient experience.
He writes: “We’re aware of the hope we raise among these forgotten people of Colombia. Yet we’re all so busy with our petty bickering, our settling of scores, wondering whether we’ll spend Christmas with our families, will we stop the tour, will we go on!”
While a bit of background information about Mano Negra and its former singer Mano Chao might help the reader put into context how important this group was in Colombia in the mid-1990s, Ramon Chao’s book does stand on its own as a piece of travel writing, but also a left-wing critique on Colombian politics and society and an observation on how idealism can be brought up short by contact with harsh reality and yet still survive.
Mano Chao has a great website featuring interviews, news, tour dates, music and video streams here.

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