Don't Fade Away

Don't forget about the band, Alex Lora begs in his squeaky voice, not even if you cut your hair, get a job, wear a three-piece suit, get married, or get liposuction. Don't forget about the band, Mexico, the first band and for so many years the only rocanrol band, El Tri. Since founding Three Souls in My Mind in 1968, Lora has neither cut his hair short nor put on a suit. El Tri, as Mexican fans took to pronouncing that bizarre English name ("We had to have a long name," says Lora as though it were yesterday, "every band back then had a long name: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Silver Messenger Service"), only managed to ink a recording contract with a major label nine years ago. For decades before that, it was pure hand-to-mouth rock and roll, sung in the native tongue of the Rolling Stones, guitar-picking along a path that ran somewhere between the diablo and Robert Johnson.

Nowadays gringos can pick up copies of El Tri's latest Spanish-only release, No Te Olvides de la Banda (Don't Forget About the Band), in their local record stores. "They told me that you will never make it with a rock and roll band in Mexico City," says the curly-haired imp Lora, now in his fifties, just before El Tri's first-ever show in Miami earlier this month. "Time has proven me right and I feel very proud of how far rocanrol has come."

Before we are forgotten/We will make history/We won't walk on our knees. If El Tri laid the foundation for Mexican rock, the group that built La Raza's stairway to heaven was Caifanes, a rock god outfit given to heavy atmospherics and mystical lyrics. Twenty years after El Tri began its incessant tours across the hemisphere winning fans gig by gig, Caifanes infiltrated the airwaves in 1988, becoming the first Mexican rock band to hit big, really big, with a raspy, slow-drag rendition of the Cuban classic "La Negra Tomasa." Typical of the group's ponderous meditations on the damned of the Earth, the song "Antes de que Nos Olviden" ("Before We Are Forgotten") comes from the 1990 Diablito (Little Devil), the second of four Caifanes discs released before the band broke up due to bad blood between frontman Saul Hernandez and guitarist Alejandro Marcovich.

Marcovich kept the name Caifanes, but songwriter and singer Hernandez kept the soul, establishing Jaguares (Jaguars) along with Caifanes drummer Alfonso Andre. After releasing El Equilibrio de los Jaguares (The Equilibrium of the Jaguares) in 1996, the pair ratcheted up to a power trio by enticing guitarist César "El Vampiro" López away from the softer pop-rock supergroup Maná. While Jaguares, like Maná, embraces Caribbean and Mexican folkloric influences, the former Caifanes deliver arena-filling epic rock and guitar-inspired ritual led by Hernandez as mystic.

Shortly after the release of 1999 double album Bajo el Azul de Tu Misterio (Beneath the Blue of Your Mystery), the group gave an interview with a Spanish-language gossip program during what has become the band's annual promotional pilgrimage to Miami. The interviewer played on that mysticism by asking Hernandez and Andre to confirm the rumors that the two had made a pledge to the Virgin de Guadalupe that they would never cut their hair as long as she granted the pair success.

The usually serious Andre played along, playing Samson for the camera.

Or maybe he was serious after all.

Last year the shaggy Jaguares made Mexican rock history again, with its third album Cuando La Sangre Galope (When the Blood Gallops), by landing a rock platter at the top of the Billboard Latin album chart. The sales of Sangre in the United States seemed to take the press and even Jaguares' label BMG by surprise. If any rock band were to claim a place beside tropical, pop, and Mexican regional favorites, wouldn't it be one of these adventurous new proponents of the so-called Latin alternative sound?

"The public was not surprised," grumbles Andre on a return visit to Miami earlier this fall.

Since Sangre is the first album produced by Hernandez and Andre without any outside help, the pair sees its success as a vindication of Jaguares' mystical evolution. "That was the first time that we got rid of the crutch of the producer," says Hernandez. "We were looking for a more aggressive, more visceral sound. Something much cruder."

The partnership worked so well that the pair took to the control board again and produced the most recent release Primer Instinto (First Instinct), a collection of acoustic versions of songs from earlier Jaguares and Caifanes albums, a few new tracks, and a remake of the Juan Gabriel classic "Te Lo Pido Por Favor." Hernandez's wounded whisper and a raunchy blues harmonica rough up the delicate flower of Mexican sentimentalism, giving the sappy love song enough bite to rock as a single. On other tracks, especially those with the sparest arrangements, Hernandez's pained vocals grow monotonous almost to trance-inducing effect.

That spell is broken by the excellent symphonic version of Caifanes favorite "Matenme Porque Me Muero" ("Kill Me Because I Am Dying"), with the strings and bass playing counterpoint to the singer. Less successful is the version of "Como Tú" as a tropical son, practically a boogaloo. Sure, the funky percussion does not so much shake up Hernandez's singsong as knock against it. His voice falls perfectly into balance against his own solo piano on the final track, a spare, heart-rending rendition of the previously unreleased "No Importa" ("It Doesn't Matter"): It doesn't matter if you left and lost me along the way/...What matters is that we fly together.

That puzzling assurance could be directed at a new generation of rockeros in Mexico and abroad. "A lot of the new generation thinks we shouldn't be playing anymore," smirks drummer Andre who, like Hernandez, is within a few years of turning 40. "It has to do with consumer society; everything is disposable."

Jaguares' recycling of its own songs -- like the repetition of the band's epic ritual onstage, which generated an energy that threatened to blow away the tiny Colony Theater during the band's first show here last year and will likely shudder the foundation of Billboardlive this Wednesday -- stands as a reminder that there is no future without the past. The new is always anchored in antecedents.

"I think one thing that helps is to produce not from the point of view of sales or marketing, but from the point of view of evolution," says Hernandez. "Every time that you do something new, you have the possibility of inventing yourself." Suddenly overcome by the mystic, he adds: "In the end, living and dying are the same thing."

Does that mean that Jaguares will continue to rock beyond the grave? Running a hand through his thick hair, his dark mane shorn earlier this year but his manner as gothically rock as ever, Andre promises, "I'm going to keep doing this until my body can't do any more."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado