The Train of Ice and Fire

The Train of Ice and Fire

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Mano Negra in Colombia

Ramón Chao. Translated by Ann Wright

Colombia, November 1993: a reconstructed old passenger train, bespangled with yellow butterflies, is carrying one hundred musicians, acrobats and artists on a daring adventure through the heart of a country soaked in violence. The intention is to put on free shows for locals at railway stations along the way: vibrant spectacles involving music, trapeze, tattoo-art, an ice museum and, star of the show, Roberto the fire-breathing dragon. Leading this crusade of hope is Manu Chao with his band Mano Negra.

Ramón Chao is on board to chronicle the journey. As the train climbs 1,000 kilometres from Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast to Bogota in the Altiplano, Ramon keeps one eye on the fluctuating morale of the train’s eccentric cargo, and the other on the ever-changing physical and social landscape. As the papa of the train, he endures personal discomfort, internal strife, derailments, stowaways, disease, guerrillas and paramilitaries. When the train arrives in Aracataca, the real-life Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mano Negra disintegrates, leaving Manu to pick up the pieces with those determined to see this once-in-a-lifetime adventure through to the end.

The Train of Ice and Fire is a book about hope and dreams in troubled times. It is about a father accompanying his son through an experience which will change his life. But most of all it is about Colombia, the flora, the fauna, the history, the politics and, more than any of that, it is a book about people.

Foreword by Ignacio Ramonet

Paperback and Hardback editions. Select from dropdown menu.

The Guardian

Few musicians would allow a journalist to accompany their band through one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Even fewer, one suspects, would be happy about that journalist being their father. But Manu Chao is not just any musician, and his father, Ramon, a critic for le Monde Diplomatique, is not just any journalist – so perhaps it should surprise no one that they ended up together on a legendary 1993 tour of Colombia by train, carrying not just musicians, acrobats and tattooists, but a fire-breathing dragon and an ice museum as well…For Manu’s growing army of admirers, the book provides a magical-realist insight into how his music has developed.


Any band that ever moaned about the freshness of the backstage towels should read this book. Chao Senior is a grey-haired presence among the Mohicans, primarily there to keep an eye on his sons. He becomes an excellent chronicler, placing us right in the thick of the action, a bone hard wooden bench for a bed and no guarantee of supper tonight.

Manu Chao

It was a trip we made in 1993. We went across Colombia by train to play in the countryside. At the time, I was touring a lot in South America, but when you are a rock band, you play in the big cities and you appreciate that the real border is not between one country and another, it’s between big cities and the countryside. It’s like two different countries. So, after playing so much in big cities, we wanted to go deep into the countryside, and play to the people in the heart of South America. My dad came with us. I’m so proud he’s my dad – he’s more crazy than me. He’s my professor of craziness.

Q Magazine

The real joy is in the detail, be it Chao Senior overheating in a polar bear costume until he loses consciousness or going so native that he gets himself tattooed as his son tuts disapprovingly. By the end you’re rooting for the cast of dysentery ridden, ceaselessly optimistic ne’er-do-wells and entranced by the madness of their undertaking.


This book raises the spirit and engages one’s laugh at every kilometre advanced. For the reader with some knowledge of Colombia and South America, it will be unavoidable to laugh at the subtleties noted by Ramón. For the rest, the book will awake a pressing interest for the country and its people and undoubtedly will be lured into this voyage.


A fabulous account of a wonderfully borderline-insane trip.


The grim living conditions, the injuries and illnesses, and the arguments that ended in the break-up of Mano Negra are all related – but the overriding sense is of the joy of doing something so out of the ordinary.

Kevin Ramage, The Watermill

The sole objective of the journey, which is guaranteed to lose money, is to raise cultural horizons, giving the poorest people hope in the process. A really inspiring book.

Culture Critic

An enthralling look at the music, culture and politics of Columbia in the 90s.

The Train of Ice and Fire Prologue

Ramón Chao's prologue to The Train of Ice and Fire

I went to Colombia because I was scared. My two sons were involved in a journey on an as yet non-existent train, on rusty tracks, through dodgy guerrilla country. They would be crossing the Bajo Magdalena – the lower reaches of the Magdalena river – one of the most dangerous places on earth, an insurgent stronghold, fought over by paramilitaries, drug traffickers, criminals, kidnappers, murderers, or possibly all of them rolled into one. I was scared for them. Antoine went to Colombia first, to prepare the infrastructure for the trip, and stayed several months. He returned to Paris to attend to more pressing projects, and Manu left for Colombia with most of his rock group Mano Negra.

The previous year, on the group’s Latin America tour (part of the Cargo ’92 enterprise), Manu had noticed there weren’t any railways in Colombia. True, there were grass and moss covered tracks and deserted railway stations, but the omnipotent air and road monopolies had gradually seen off the more democratic railways. Manu, who is very stubborn, was determined to reactivate a form of transport that is so crucial to a country’s social and geographic fabric. Their train would go from Bogotá to Santa Marta and back, stopping at ten stations to give rock concerts, circus and theatre performances, and an exhibition of ice sculptures.

I repeat, I was scared. There was talk of kidnapping, hostage-taking, murders. Manu was over there in the thick of it and I was in Paris calmly (so to speak) going to exhibitions, plays and libraries. I caught the train literally as it was moving off, under the illusion that with me beside him nothing could happen to Manu. But lots of things did happen. Firstly, the resurgence of our family’s Hispano-American past. Watching my son dancing salsa convinced me that something from over there was in our genes. At home I’m considered a bit of fantasist, but my sons’ attachment to the people and music of Latin America confirms my suspicions: my paternal grandfather is not the one that figures in our family tree, but Mario García Kohly, minister in the government of Cuba’s first president Tomás Estrada Palma, and later Cuban ambassador to Spain. My grandmother left Galicia for Cuba, fleeing her quarrelsome drunken husband. She worked as a maid in García Kohly’s house and got involved with him.

García Kohly’s house was a meeting place for musicians and writers. The host himself wrote poems that didn’t make much of a mark, except for the words of the habanera ‘Tú’ that he wrote under the pseudonym Ferrán Sánchez. The composer Sánchez de Fuentes was a regular visitor to the house, and it was he who put the habanera to music. I deduce from all this that the ‘Tú’ in question, symbol of Cuban sensuality, was that beautiful warm Galician lady with blue eyes and rosy cheeks; my sons’ great-grandmother.

‘In Cuba, beautiful island of burning sun,
under its sky of blue,
adorable brunette,
of all the flowers,
the queen is you.’

The drunken husband who had stayed in Galicia, arrived in Havana one unfortunate day looking for his wife. And since the droit de seigneur (the right to a legover) brings with it the duty of protection, the man was found with a bullet in his head at the corner of Escobar and Galiano, in Old Havana. I imagine that in Cuba it wasn’t difficult for anyone with influence to order whatever he wanted. My father was born shortly afterwards. His strong likeness to García Kohly, according to a photo of the former ambassador in the Spanish encyclopaedia, leaves my detective thesis in no doubt. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but astral calculations indicate that my father was conceived after my grandmother fled Spain and before the arrival of her wretched husband.

García Lorca said that to be a good Spaniard you have to have a Latin American dimension. My sons had discovered that in Paris. Apart from the fact that my professional activities involved Latin America, at home we always played the music of Beny Moré, Violeta Parra, Atahualpa Yupanqui and many others. Bola de Nieve’s song ‘Ay Mama Inés’ that Manu included in his repertoire, was one that he heard and sang all the time as a child. Manu reminded me not long ago that as teenagers, he and Antoine got into all sorts of mischief, but when they came home they’d meet someone like García Márquez, and that redressed the balance. I remember one of the first things Manu played on the guitar was a piece by the Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, and the first percussion instruments he and Antoine had were brought from Havana by Alejo Carpentier. For his part, Antoine was musical director of Radio Latina in Paris for a time and now produces Cuban music records, keeping close ties with the island.

In this book, I recount the vicissitudes of the journey made by the Train of Ice and Fire. They called it that because it was pulling a flaming wagon full of huge blocks of ice to Aracataca, Gabriel García Márquez’ home town. Remember the opening chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude when the gypsy Melquíades brings ice to the children of Macondo for the first time? But I think the most important thing, the thing that affected me most emotionally (apart from the wish lists the Colombian kids wrote) was the break-up of Mano Negra, that mythical group created by Manu, and including Antoine and my nephew Santi, that began rehearsing in the basement of my house.

Manu saw the train through till the end, but was totally burnt out. In another book, I recount how he recharged his batteries on a pioneering journey by motorbike from Paris to Compostela, passing through places where the martyred bishop Prisciliano (executed in Tréveris and buried in Compostela in a tomb arbitrarily attributed to Santiago) had preached. To face a new life as a solo artist, without his band, Manu gathered strength from the land and sea of Cape Finisterre, where Old Europe ends and you look out towards the New World. In the bars of Camelle and Muxía, he began to write ‘Bixo’, ‘La Vaca Loca’, ‘La Despedida’…and the rest is history.


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Ramón Chao

Ramón Chao (born 1935 in Vilalba, Lugo) was a Galician writer who emigrated to France in 1956 in order to escape Francisco Franco’s regime.

He was chief editor for the Latin American service of Radio France Internationale, and used to work for Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique.

In 1984 he created the Prix Juan Rulfo award for new Spanish language writers.

He is the father of singer Manu Chao and radio maker Antoine Chao. He died in May 2018.

Books: The Train of Ice and Fire, Because Cuba is You.

Ann Wright

Ann Wright has translated fourteen books from Spanish and French including Motorcycle Diaries, The Fragrance of Guava and I, Rigoberta Menchu. She is an active human rights worker and lectures on the theory and practice of civilian protection. She lives in London.

Books: The Train of Ice and Fire, Away From the Light of Day, Because Cuba is You

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