Mana is indisputably the commercial giant of Latin rock. The first rock en espanol group to score a gold album in the United States, the band's status is truly -- and internationally -- gargantuan.
Accordingly, it was apropos that, after an arty, soft-core porn video played on two huge screens to open the band's September 19 Miami Arena concert, silhouettes of the quartet were projected twenty feet tall on a scrim at the front of the stage. It was an impressive show opener: arena rock at its most dramatic, if not also its most cliched.
Eight thousand fans attended the performance, most of them packs of teenagers or college students whose families have moved to Miami from South and Central America. Tracks from Mana's latest album, Suenos Liquidos, blasted from cars as they pulled into downtown parking lots.
The 1997 release, sixth in the band's twelve-year career, is the second to go gold in this country, after 1995's Donde Jugaran los Ninos. A crafty mix of head-banging rock beats, bluesy riffs, and lyrical ballads infused with a sampler of pan-Latin rhythms, it has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Mana has been able to cross the musical borders of Latin American countries whose younger citizens have traditionally been nationalistic in their taste in bands. The group has also been remarkably successful in penetrating Latin rock's next frontier: the United States.
A decade ago Latin rock groups that were stars in their own countries, such as Argentina's Charly Garcia and Soda Stereo, assumed they would have to one day record in English to crack the American market. To the members of Mana, that was clearly the wrong approach.
"We knew the audience was already there," says drummer Alex Gonzalez, the son of Cuban and Colombian parents; he was raised in Miami and moved to Mexico in his teens. "A lot of the kids who see us in Latin America move to the United States with their families or come here to study. They bring their CDs and cassettes with them and pass them on to their friends here. Mana has gotten popular through word of mouth, which I think is the best kind of publicity." After years of touring in Mexico and then the rest of Latin America, the Guadalajara-based band first played in this country in 1992, surprisingly selling out three concerts in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheatre even though no local radio stations were playing their music.
Gonzalez's own experience as a member of the young U.S. bilingual generation has helped shape the band's marketing strategy. Since those first Los Angeles dates, he and Mana frontman Fernando "Fher" Olvera have pushed their record company, WEA Latina, to promote their albums more aggressively here and to make touring here a priority. Besides becoming the first Latin rock band to sell more than 500,000 albums in the United States, the group is the first rock band to lead Billboard's Latin 50 chart, and the first rock en espanol band to make the Billboard 200, an all-genre list of the top-selling albums in America. The current tour includes about 40 cities in the United States and Canada.
"Mana has found the formula to play rock fused with Latin elements, be they salsa, reggae, South American, or Central American rhythms," declares Gonzalez. "We are the new generation representing Latins, not only in Latin America but in the United States as well."
The cultural schizophrenia inherent in Mana's music characterized the Miami Arena show. Initially it was an American-style stadium concert, flawlessly produced if not particularly innovative. Fher seemed to be impersonating David Lee Roth as he jumped around the stage and shook his long blond hair to the beat of thumping teen anthems like "Un Lobo Por Tu Amor" or "Tu Tienes Lo Que Quiero."
But later, Fher had the young fans singing along to an old ranchera before he settled into an unplugged portion of the concert, during which he accompanied himself on guitar. His voice, high-ranged with a raspy edge, was gorgeous on several ballads with, variously, flamenco melodies, Cuban son beats, and Mexican folkloric rhythms.
No matter what Mana did, the crowd remained on its feet throughout the 90-minute show. Girls screamed and boys played along on air guitar. Some brought their mothers; young fathers danced with toddlers on their shoulders. During the acoustic set, everyone swayed wistfully, hands in the air.
"Latin rock is a monster awakening in the United States," says Fher. "We are just the tip of the iceberg. This is going to be huge in this country. The audience is there."
While Mana is essentially preaching to the choir by appealing to Latins here, other bands have begun to ambitiously court a less obvious audience for rock in Spanish -- non-Spanish-speaking Americans. Last month the Colombian group Bloque set up house in the Poconos and played a series of club gigs on the East Coast, including a stint at the hip downtown Manhattan club Fez.
Bloque's American residency was organized by Luaka Bop, David Byrne's ten-year-old label. In the past the company has brought new Brazilian and Cuban music to urbane American listeners. Among those currently on the Luaka Bop roster are the Argentine ska band King Changó, the kitschy Venezuelan lounge lizards Los Amigos Invisibles, and Los de Abajo, a punk-salsa group from Mexico. Although most major labels market Spanish-language rock in the United States, Luaka Bop takes a more assertive stance.
"By the middle of next year we'll probably be the biggest Latin rock label in the United States," says Jeffrey Kaye, Luaka Bop's publicity director. "And it's a huge mistake to think that Latins are the only audience for this music."
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Kaye reports that the audience for Bloque's shows has been a pretty even mix of long-time Latin rock fans, particularly Colombians, and inquisitive non-Latins from everywhere. The members of Bloque describe their dance-inducing style as "psychotropical," an insistent assault of funky grooves, pounding percussion, Latin dance rhythms, and acid and Afro guitars, accompanied by street-style chanting of often apocalyptic lyrics. While Mana has adhered to the traditional patterns of American rock and Latin folkloric music to create a cross-cultural mainstream sound, Bloque's Latin rock fusion is a snarled concoction of underground soul.
Bloque's self-titled debut album will be released in the United States this week, but it has already received fervent reviews from rock critics.
"We're pushing it to everybody, and everybody's picking it up," says Kaye, citing enthusiastic writeups in the the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. "They're not categorizing it as a Latin rock album; they're finding it to be just a rock album."
Well they should. As a leader in the movement and by appealing to the cultural roots of U.S. Hispanics, Mana has consecrated rock in Spanish as a force to be reckoned with beyond the borders of Latin America. Meanwhile Bloque, like other young Latin American bands, is communicating with a new non-Latin audience here through the language of music.