In the end, it may have taken Carlos Freaking Santana himself to put an end to Latin rock's favorite sport: Maná bashing. For eleven years, the Guadalajara-based band has been among the genre's biggest punching bags, derided as fresas ("strawberries" or softies) who make crappy music for preppy kids who don't know any better. The reason? For starters, Maná outsold everyone (16 million copies and counting) and became the most successful Latin rock group of all time, and it did so with a pop-heavy sound that drew comparisons with the Police -- sans Sting. Its members were sitting ducks for sharp-shooting purists (including this writer) who never did quite understand what all the hoopla was about. But that was all before Santana donated his golden guitar to the cause.
The rock legend toured with the band, then put his seal of approval on Revolución de Amor, Maná's first studio album in five years and, to no one's surprise, a commercial success already. The album made its August debut at the top spot on Billboard's Latin charts, and the band's concerts last month at Los Angeles's Universal Amphitheatre sold out in all of twenty minutes (sales in Miami are strong). What may be surprising is that Revolución is also Maná's strongest album yet musically. Featuring Rubén Blades on the tropical "Sábanas Frías" ("Cold Sheets," arguably the best song on the album) and Ozomatli's Asdrúbal Sierra singing the chorus on the powerful "No Quiero Ser Tu Esclavo" ("I Don't Want to Be Your Slave"), the album is a balanced offering of mild and hot, highlighted by guitarist Sergio Vallín's all-out style and with songs written by three members of the quartet. But it's "Justicia, Tierra y Libertad" ("Justice, Land, and Freedom"), the track that opens the album with guest guitar from Santana, that has critics finally taking a second look at Maná.
Maná's roots reach back to Guadalajara in the early Eighties, where Fher Olvera, Gustavo Orozco, and brothers Juan, Abraham, and Ulises Calleros formed Sombrero Verde, a pop band so lightweight it made Maná sound like Judas Priest. After a series of personnel changes (Abraham and Ulises Calleros [now Maná's manager] dropped out, as did Orozco; drummer Alex González, guitarist César "Vampiro" López, and keyboardist Iván González joined), they found success as Maná, touring extensively -- hundreds of shows a year, whether their albums had been released in the local markets or not. When a cassette they'd given someone in Ecuador -- where the albums weren't yet available -- turned up on the radio and reached number one, a lightbulb switched on: The more they toured, the better they'd do.
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"We thought, 'If we made it to number one and the album wasn't even released, then we can release the album everywhere and play everywhere,'" singer and main songwriter Olvera says. The plan worked. 1992's Dónde Jugarán los Niños? (Where Will the Children Play?) sold more than a million copies and established Maná as a Latin rock superpower. But López and Iván González were not happy, and they left in 1993. Enter Sergio Vallín, an hidrocálido (a native of the state of Aguascalientes, even though he lived in Guadalajara) who got the job after the band reportedly auditioned 5000 guitarists throughout the Americas. The new lineup worked even better.
It's the lineup that remains to this day. And its members couldn't be more different.
Bassist Juan Calleros is courteous and affable but shy; he doesn't talk -- period.
Olvera, the voice and symbol of Maná, is neither a rocker nor a pop idol, but a gypsy. Give him a guitar, a woman, and a few shots of tequila (Herradura or Patrón, not Cuervo), and he's a happy guy.
Drummer González, meanwhile, is Olvera's perfect opposite: the aggressive and business-savvy band member, he's a Keith Moon with a work ethic.
And Vallín is the new guy. As shy as Calleros, but he talks. Okay, he's been around for nine years, but it's hard to fill Vampiro's shoes. He's a Steve Vai meets Santana meets George Harrison, and the much-needed edge Maná was lacking.
Truth is, despite the rockeros' gripes (and the band's own limitations in the studio), Maná always rocked onstage, could always play alongside anyone. It was the music itself -- syrupy pop offered up at a time when the best in Mexican rock (Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, Café Tacuba) were busy making "proper" rock -- that drew the barbs. Olvera says Maná always got a bad rap.
"C'mon, man," he says. "The Beatles started out [with] 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'! 'Te quiero agarrar la manoooo...' -- gimme a break! Okay, great song, but in today's context it's a very corny thing. But that was Lennon as a kid, man -- that was the way he expressed himself. [And] that's the process of a band. You start somewhere, ascend to a certain point, and then you fall. It happened to everyone, and it'll happen to us."
Maybe, but not just yet. Revolución de Amor features plenty of the usual Maná, the catchy, leechy kind that rockeros hate -- but this time it's done intelligently, with good taste and with a vengeance. It's a guitar-oriented album, for which the band tried more than 100 guitars and dozens of amps, and the result is an earthy, analog feel, one of Maná's main goals.
"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 real crossover 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.
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"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 years like 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.