A Little Respeto

How Maná won the war for its reputation -- without really trying

"We want to sound studio when we're live, and live when we're at the studio," Olvera says. "We want to continue making artisan music, organic, natural.... We don't mind little mistakes here and there; you just can't dehumanize music. You wouldn't buy a painting from a guy who did the thing on a computer."

Maná is a band of contradictions. The pop world loves them as much as the rock world scorns them, but in that pop world, Maná is all rock, from its lyrics about women, alcohol, and pot to its political commitment, something that the Latin music industry as a rule considers passé (proudly zapatistas, pro-labor and pro-environment, the band members have never been shy with their opinions). Fresas or not, Maná is more genuinely aware of the world's social and economic environment than many of the so-called "serious" bands out there.

And while they've broken sales record after sales record, they've done it on their own terms -- literally. "We're not actors," Olvera says, dismissing suggestions that the band sings in English to boost its crossover appeal. Not that it matters -- with Revolución de Amor, Maná is closer to a realcrossover than anyone else in the business. Sung entirely in Spanish, the disc debuted at No. 22 on Billboard's Top 200 chart.

Olvera and Co. are a contradiction musically as well. They bounce from sugary ballads to Latin fusion to reggae, pop, and rock, never fully embracing any one style; that fickleness is only mitigated by the rare talent of two guys (Olvera and the Cuban-born González) who still don't quite understand they might be the best songwriting team in all of Latin pop music.

"We had so many songs [for Revolución], we almost released a double album," says Olvera, drinking red wine under a full moon next to the swimming pool at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles. "But that would have been a mistake. We decided to take it easy and save the songs for later. But we've never been so fired up."

What happened in the five years since the band's last trip to the studio? No more and no less than one successful album that they recorded in their sleep (1999's MTV Unplugged,which earned the band a fourth Grammy); meetings with heroes Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Benedetti, Sting, Paco de Lucía, and others; and a few intense musical experiences around the globe, most notably in Spain and Turkey.

"We spent three months in the caves of Granada listening to the cantaores," Olvera says. "But not at the tourist sites -- the real fucking thing! We were right there with the fucking Gypsy sons of bitches.... You go in and smoke a puff of hash, because that's your admission ticket, and [when] you enter the cave they're playing raw flamenco, cabrón -- not the Gipsy Kings' stuff." The memory clearly excites Olvera; he's practically yelling. "And then we went to Istanbul and got some more hash, and nourished ourselves on Arab music, and brought a huge pile of records.... I mean, five yearslike that, at our speed ... it was like being on a bullet train. It all became like a huge musical diarrhea."

"Musical diarrhea." Having spent time with García Marquez and Benedetti, the best description Olvera can muster for the experience is a scatological one, and that laziness reflects in Maná's lyrics. As he sings in "Ay Doctor," "...nothing consoles me/Not pasta, not ganja, not alcohol." Yes, pasta. Fortunately Vallín's guitar and the harmonies of the chorus save a song only Maná could have pulled off. But if its lyrics remain Maná's weakest link, its intentions are unfailingly noble. Despite the group's success, Maná knows the earth is not a pretty place: "Give me faith, give me wings," sings González on "Fe" ("Faith"), which he wrote. "Give me strength to survive in this world." Not exactly Octavio Paz -- but nonetheless an oddly optimistic reminder that the world still sucks.

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