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The Train Of Ice And Fire

March 14, 2012

First published May 2009

Ramon Chao

Most people (me included) will pick up this book for the music content – the subtitle ‘Mano Negra in Colombia’ offers the intriguing prospect of the politicised and highly outspoken Manu Chao leading his band Manu Negra through Colombia in the 90’s, a volatile and dangerous undertaking. However there is surprisingly little music in the book, not least because Manu Negra break up half-way through. But that doesn’t matter because everything else about this book is fascinating. Ramon Chao (Manu’s father) offers a warts-and-all chronicle of a totally-bonkers enterprise where a reconstructed old passenger train painted in yellow butterflies travelled over a barely-used railway network bringing free shows containing music, circus, tattoos and a fire-breathing giant iron dragon to Colombian towns who have never seen anything like it.

The train starts with over one hundred musicians, acrobats and artists on board – by the end, six weeks later, over half have jumped ship. Those who are left are poorer, thinner and conscious of having played their part in a great romantic adventure. Ramon notes wryly that the show – a highly volatile combination of temperamental humans, dodgy electricity and large blocks of ice – seems to run more smoothly when the arts administrators jump the train and their jobs are taken over by the engineers responsible for keeping the train going.

The only parallel I can think of is Festival Express, when in 1970 the Grateful Dead, The Band and Janis Joplin toured Canada by train. The resulting film (now on DVD) is worth a look, with the on-train jams more interesting than the concert performances. However that was a very insular affair with the musicians seeming to have little interest in what was happening outside their closed environment. Ramon’s book is the reverse, where the train and the world through which it passes is inextricably linked.

The real stars of this book are the Colombian people who flock to the show and leave heartbreaking comments every night in “The Office of Human Desires”. What comes through is the desparate desire for peace, and an end to the drug-related conflicts that claims the lives of so many ordinary citizens. Watching from the train Ramon is good at chronicling the changing landscape and makes much of Colombia sound well worth a visit. Manu Chao comes over as refreshingly modest for someone who has been described as a latin Joe Strummer. To see Mano Negra in action check out King Of The Bongo or Mala Vida on YouTube and be impressed by their mix of  The Clash, ska, jazz, reggae and Latin music.

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