Franny Brogan discusses the unique role of code-switching in Manu Chao’s music
Code-switching, the alternate use of two or more languages within the same discourse, is a pervasive reality in multilingual communities worldwide. Once thought to be the result of lexical deficiencies in multilinguals, recent studies have shown that multilingual speakers are fully proficient in all languages and often code-switch as a stylistic and pragmatic device (Thompson, 2011). In other words, language alternation is not entirely spontaneous, but rather depends upon the topic at hand and the interlocutor with whom the speaker is communicating.
Because code-switching appears so frequently in spoken discourse, the fact that it has been integrated into music is not surprising. From the Arabic-French rai music of North Africa to the Spanish-English reggaeton of Puerto Rico and Miami, code-switched lyrics seem to be byproducts of the multilingual communities in which they originate. These musical genres are in large part defined by their language alternation and have therefore been the topics of linguistic interest and research.
With the amount of research that has been done on musical code-switching, it is surprising that there has been no academic discussion of prolific musician Manu Chao, who is best known for his utilization of numerous languages and dialects. One possible explanation is that his lyrics do not seem to follow these pre-established motivations for musical code-switching, as there are many characteristics that set him apart from other musical code-switchers. The models set forth by prior studies in this area are problematic in an analysis of Manu Chao, so a more nuanced approach is needed to examine his unique use of language in music.
Studies on musical code-switching tend to take a formal approach, treating language alternation as a stylistic and pragmatic device just as they would if it were to appear in everyday conversation. Scholars have often used the Myers-Scotton Markedness Model to explore patterns of musical code-switching, distinguishing between what Myers-Scotton calls the Matrix Language (ML) — the more active, dominant language — and the less frequently used Embedded Language (EL). This model posits that speakers use language choices to follow abstract social codes in a given interaction. Each language used is associated with particular social roles, and by speaking in a particular language, a speaker signals understanding of the current situation and particularly his or her role within the context (Myers-Scotton, 1993).
In their analysis of North African rai music, for example, Davies and Bentahila (2006) conclude that the Matrix Language is used to narrate the story of the song, while the Embedded Language provides a small amount of expression and commentary on the theme. The authors also note that different languages tend to be used for different parts of a song (such as chorus and verses), further contributing to this structure-based analysis. In addition to structure, studies on musical code-switching have identified thematic motivations. Davies and Bentahila (2006) find that rai music typically employs French when talking about love, using a code-switch to signify a change in topic. Similarly, in a study on code-switching in Puerto Rican reggaeton music, Gorichanaz (2012) looks at the correlation between specific themes and the percentage of lyrics in Spanish (versus English). Gorichanaz finds that Puerto Rican reggaeton artists are more likely to use Spanish when discussing personally relevant subject matters, such as sex and politics, and less likely to use Spanish when discussing topics that are abundant in English-language media and rap music, such as “street life” and “partying.”
Finally, many scholars have emphasized the cultural importance of musical code-switching. Just as a code-switched dialect is a marker of identity in a multilingual community, the use of this dialect in music can further establish the cultural and regional identity of the singers/musicians. Davies and Bentahila (2006) argue that many artists use code-switching to identify themselves as representatives of particular communities in which the alternation of specific languages is a prominent symbol of the population. In this way, code-switched lyrics strive to mimic the linguistic situation of a region or culture.
These studies of musical code-switching lay a solid foundation; however, not all code-switched lyrics can be characterized using this schema. When applying these theories to Manu Chao, the analysis is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Markedness Model proves insufficient when dealing with code-switching in seven distinct languages (Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Galician, and Arabic). Because of the multiplicity of languages he incorporates into his music, Chao cannot be adequately analyzed using a dichotomous model that distinguishes between a “dominant language” and a “second language.”
To further complicate matters, Chao’s code-switching tends to occur between songs as opposed to within them (although the latter does occur on occasion). Instead of looking at each song as a single discourse, we must look at entire albums and how Chao’s language choices create structure in this way. This is exemplified in the album Próxima estación: Esperanza, where the dominant language changes from song to song. The first song on the album is English-dominant, the second is Galician, the third is Portuguese, the fourth is English, the fifth is Spanish, the sixth is a mixture of Spanish and French, the seventh is Arabic, and so on. Chao creates a sense of unity across this linguistically diverse album by using the same background music in numerous songs; this technique supports the argument that each individual song is linked to the others. With such a diverse use of language, Chao’s language alternation cannot be reduced to a simple structural analysis as is offered by other studies of musical code-switching.
By code-switching across this album, Chao creates a narrative for his listeners. A change in language signals a change in narrative voice, and although the audience cannot understand every language in use, they experience the shift in perspective that comes with each code-switch. Furthermore, when listeners are confronted with a song in a language that they don’t understand, the emphasis shifts to the music itself, and they are forced to become immersed in sounds and melodies that often speak for themselves. In addition to code-switching, Chao’s music is well known for its use of fragmented sound bites such as sirens and news clips; by switching back and forth between widely recognized languages (such as Spanish and English) and lesser-known languages (such as Galician), Chao forces the audience to tap into these other resources to create meaning. While we often put undue emphasis on words themselves, Chao’s constant code-switching serves to remind us that we can communicate in other ways, therefore eliminating the invisible walls created by language differences.
Unlike much of rai or reggaeton, Chao’s code-switching cannot be thematically divided in a systematic way. To say that Chao uses code-switching to merely signal topic change would be an oversimplification.
There is little debate that Manu Chao’s lyrics are politically charged; his songs are intended to stir social change, with particular emphasis on increasing solidarity within the anti-globalization movement. Even for those not already involved in the movement, Chao hopes to encourage all his listeners to think critically about globalization. For this reason, his code-switching is thematically organized according to the population to whom he is speaking. The song “Denia,” for example, uses Arabic as its dominant language in its message to the people of Algeria:
Poor Algeria/ Life beats in the rhythm of your dismay/ Life itself is a lie/ My heart aches to watch you/ Poor Algeria/ Life through your eyes/ Life as lie/ Life swarming with police/ Life soaked with mothers’ tears/ Life racked with madness/ Poor Algeria/ Who really cares/ in America about/ What’s happening in Algeria?/ Who really knows?
Chao reaches out to Algerians with a sympathetic but also precautionary message, warning them to be wary of globalization. It is important for Chao to deliver such a message in the culture’s native tongue, as singing to them in any other language would actually validate globalization. In this way, Chao’s code-switching is intrinsically tied to the thematic content of his lyrics.
Similarly, in the song “Welcome to Tijuana,” Chao code-switches between English and Spanish as he describes the desperation and violence in the Mexico-U.S. border city:
Welcome to Tijuana/ Tequila, sexo, marijuana/ Welcome to Tijuana/ Con el coyote no hay aduana…Bienvenida a Tijuana/Bienvenida mi amor/ De noche a la mañana… Bienvenida tu pena/ Bienvenida la cena/ Sopita de camaró/ Bienvenida mi suerte/ Bienvenida la muerte/ Por la Panamericana…”
Again, Chao uses the language appropriate for his audience; in this case, it is a Spanish-dominant mixture of Spanish and English, which is an accurate reflection of the border dialect spoken in Tijuana. For Chao, Tijuana is emblematic of Mexico-U.S. relations: he mentions the alcohol, sex, and drugs that often bring Americans across the border; the “coyote” who smuggles undocumented immigrants into the U.S.; the role of the media, who feed off the controversy; and of course violence. Once again, Chao’s code-switching can be characterized thematically based on the population with whom he is communicating.
Despite his relative lack of popularity in the U.S., Chao reaches out to the American population in his anti-globalization efforts, knowing that his words will resonate with some. In “Rainin’ in Paradize,” a track that appears on his album La Radiolina, Chao references various places that have suffered due to U.S. globalization and colonization: Zaire, Masai, Monrovia, Palestine, Fallujah, Jerusalem, Monrovia, and Guinea-Bissau. The most shocking line comes when he sings, “In Baghdad/ It’s no democracy/ That’s just because/ It’s a U.S. country.” Chao’s use of English in this song is especially important in the transmission of his anti-globalization message, as most of the U.S. is English-speaking. Instead of code-switching to signal topic change, Chao code-switches to redirect his message at its intended audience.
Most polemic in the analysis of Chao’s code-switching is the question of regional and cultural identity. His father hails from the Basque Country and his mother is from Galicia, both autonomous communities in northwest Spain. They fled Spain together after Chao’s grandfather was sentenced to death under Franco’s dictatorship, and settled in Paris, where Chao was born and raised. As a musician, Chao has spent the majority of his life on the road. His first band, Mano Negra, became popular in South America through their Cargo Tour in 1992, when they played shows in port cities from a stage built on their ship. The band then went on to tour Colombia on an old train, playing shows for peasants. Chao currently splits his time between Madrid, Buenos Aires, and northern Brazil, where his son lives. In an interview, Culshaw (2007) asked the musician what motivated his “manic travelling.” His response was, “I have a terror of routine” (Culshaw 2007).
The result is a lack of cultural roots and national identity which sets him apart from most code-switching musicians. His language alternation cannot and does not distinguish his cultural or regional identity as it does for them. Instead, it reinforces his lack of such identity. Chao’s seven-language code-switching as well as the absence of a single dominant language from his lyrics shows that he is a product of his nomadic history.
This is most apparent in two songs in particular: “Besoin de la lune” and “Clandestino.” In “Besoin de la lune” he sings, “I need my father/ To know where I come from/ Need my mother/ To show me the way.” It is appropriate that Chao sings this song in French, as that was the language he learned growing up as an immigrant in Paris, questioning his roots. In “Clandestino,” he uses his mother tongue in a song that grapples with his lack of identity:
“Solo voy con mi pena/ Sola va mi condena/ Correr es mi destino/ Para burlar la ley/ Perdido en el corazón/ De la grade Babilón/ Me dicen el clandestino/ Por no llevar papel/ Pa’ una ciudad del norte/ Yo me fui a trabajar/ Mi vida la dejé/ Entre Ceuta y Gibraltar/ Soy una raya en el mar/ Fantasma en la ciudad/ Mi vida va prohibida/ Dice la autoridad… Peruano clandestino/ Africano clandestino/ Argelino clandestino/ Nigeriano clandestino/ Boliviano clandestino/ Mano Negra ilegal.”
This feeling of being like an illegal immigrant, whose destiny is to go from one place to another and never fully belong, is manifested in the code-switching, which is symptomatic of someone who belongs both everywhere and nowhere.
While Manu Chao’s musical code-switching has structural, thematic, and cultural motivations, they do not fit into the usual framework as established by previous scholarship. In fact, he turns musical code-switching on its head, adding new levels of complexity that have been previously unrecognized. This is in part because of the number of languages he uses, the protest-nature of his music, and his own personal history. Consequently, his code-switching serves a different social purpose than other musical code-switchers. Reggaeton, for example, is a popular, transnational music that continues to legitimize code-switching in bilingualism for a community of people who were previously shunned for it. Chao, while he himself is a multicultural polyglot by virtue of his upbringing, can use so many languages and allude to so many musical traditions not just because of his upbringing, but because of his nomadic lifestyle.
Culshaw, Peter. “World Beater.” The Guardian 14 July 2007. 12 Dec 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2007/jul/15/worldmusic
Davies, E., & Bentahila, A. “Code Switching and the Globalisation of Popular Music: The Case of North African Rai and Rap.” Multilingua 25 (2008): 367-392.
Gorichanaz, Tim. “The Nature of Code-Switching in Puerto Rican Reggaeton Music. “The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 7 Dec 2012 http://www.academia.edu/1559116/
Myers-Scotton, Carol. Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Thompson, G. “Code-Switching as Style-Shifting.” International Journal of Language Studies 5 (2011): 1-18.
Manu Chao. Various tracks. La Radiolina. Virgin Records, 2007.
Manu Chao. Various tracks. Próxima estación: Esperanza. Virgin Records, 2000.
Manu Chao. Various tracks. Clandestino. Virgin Records, 1998.
Franny Brogan is a graduate student in Spanish linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Her academic work focuses on code-switching in bilingual communities in the U.S.