Mana has all the makings of a traditional rock and roll band: four serious guys with a sound, a look, and a message that's accessible, likable, and genuine. The only difference is that Mana's lyrics are in Spanish. Among the most popular purveyors of rock en espanol, these musicians don't just borrow from traditional rock; they blend it with Caribbean and Latin American elements for a sound that is starting to catch on even with audiences who don't understand what they're saying.
This Guadalajara, Mexico-based quartet -- vocalist/guitarist Fernando "Fher" Olvera, gutarist Sergio Vallin, bassist Juan Calleros, and drummer Alex Gonzalez -- dominates the Spanish-language rock market in the U.S. and Latin America. Mana is the first Spanish-language pop group to sell out two consecutive performances at Los Angeles's Universal Amphitheater, and their 1992 album ADonde Jugaran los Ninos? (Where Will the Children Play?) sold more than two million copies worldwide. Their current album, Cuando los Angeles Lloran (When Angels Cry), garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Pop Performance last January and the band's third Billboard Latin music award for best pop-rock album. Last year, the band recorded a song called "Celoso" ("Jealous") for the Francis Ford Coppola film My Family.
"We've been so unbelievably well received in all of Latin America," says drummer Alex Gonzalez of the band's success, in a phone interview from his hotel room in Chicago during a recent string of shows in the Windy City. "In this country, it's been a word-of-mouth thing. Only about 1 of 100 stations plays us, but with barely any radio airplay, we've sold more than one million copies.
"There is a very hungry crowd that wants to hear this kind of music; a lot of our fans are tired of listening to salsa and traditional Mexican music," continues Gonzalez, a Miami native who moved to Mexico as a kid but still has roots here. "Rock is something everyone loves. We listen to all types of music; when we play in different countries, we listen to typical traditional music to see what can inspire us to do our own thing. We don't want all our records to sound the same." Gonzalez cites a wide range of influences: Bob Marley, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Pearl Jam, U2, Peter Gabriel, and Led Zeppelin.
"I'd say we kick major ass, more than some American bands," Gonzalez says with good-natured pride. "We're a genuine band, not some product of marketing. We've been together for ten years and have traveled in a van from club to club like any other band."
Mana debuted in 1990 with Falta Amor, following that up with Jugaran in 1992, and a live set, Mana en Vivo, in 1994. The band's fourth album is a diverse collection of pop-rock tunes spiced with international flavors. The rock sound in Angeles recalls that of the Police -- reggae rhythms with punkish guitar blasts in the up-tempo tunes, melodic strummings backing smooth, wailing vocals in the ballads. Throughout, the record is laced with flourishes ranging from Andean pan flutes to Caribbean salsa to Indian sitars.
On its previous releases, Mana delivered serious messages within lightweight Caribbean pop-rock frameworks. Angeles, however, finds the band breaking old formulas and traveling in the direction of hard rock. With this musical change came a change in lineup: Former lead guitarist Cesar "Vampiro" Gonzalez and keyboardist Ivan Gonzalez (no relation) left the band in 1994 because of -- what else? -- creative and personal differences. After searching Mexico, Spain, and Argentina, the band recruited guitarist Vallin and bassist Juan Calleros.
"People don't know what to expect from us, but we're still Mana," Gonzalez explains. "We've gotten into Sixties psychedelic and Middle Eastern sounds, and funk rock, but also Cuban bolero and trova, as in 'El Reloj Cucu' ('The Cuckoo Clock'). Each song is its own little world."
The band is known for socially conscious lyrics regarding the environment -- particularly the destruction of the Amazon rain forest -- as well as AIDS, sex, poverty, and drugs. The title track from Cuando los Angeles Lloran is dedicated to Chico Mendes, the slain Brazilian environmentalist. The tough rocker "Ana" deals with teen pregnancy, while the reggae-driven ballad "Selva Negra" ("Black Forest") addresses deforestation.
From the stage, Mana addresses social problems and abuses plaguing the areas they are playing. Vocalist Olvera met with Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori in 1993 to discuss the destruction of that nation's rain forests. The singer has even gone so far as to say that AIDS is a devastating disease created by Mother Nature as an answer to overpopulation.
"We have the opportunity to play in front of millions of people each year and do something for the Earth," Gonzalez muses. "We will keep singing about women, love, broken relationships, but we will also talk about racism, the environment, condom use, and other social issues."
To that end, Mana recently established an environmental organization called Selva Negra, devoted to passing on information and starting recycling and tree-planting projects. "We got involved [in conservation] because of Fher," explains Gonzalez. "He was getting more involved in the environment when he wrote ADonde Jugaran los Ninos? Since 1992 people have become so much more aware of the environment in Latin America. It wasn't like [in the U.S.], where people have been aware of it for a long time. There is so much corruption, and so much has been taken from Latin America, so many natural resources have been exploited. We've always been a conscious band, but we didn't realize that if we sang about it, it would have such an impact."
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Not all of Mana's songs are quite so serious. "El Borracho" ("The Drunk") takes its sound from the Mexican vallenato and its inspiration from the party-filled nights of Puerto Vallarta. "Como Un Perro Enloquecido" ("Like a Mad Dog") is a spirited, jangly reggae-rocker about love gone bad. And "Dejame Entrar" ("Let Me In") is a fun funk-rock romp.
Mana had a taste of crossover possibilities when they recorded a remake of Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain" in Spanish that became the title track of the recent Zep tribute Encomium. (It was the only song in the collection recorded in a language other than English). The band was also the first Spanish-language group to appear on the Regis and Kathie Lee show.
"People are starting to get curious about us, and they get hooked on the energy and rhythm. People fall in love with the lyrics when they hear them translated," Gonzalez says. "We aren't recycling American music. Fher sings in English perfectly, but [crossing over] has to be at the right moment. We want to achieve a high status in Spanish. We want to be the biggest Latin-rock band since Santana."
Mana performs on Saturday, September 7, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave, 530-4444. Showtime is 8:00. Tickets cost $25, $35, and $40.