The new Latin American sound—Spanish lyrics and in-your-face politics
Mexico seems like a distant province when it comes to the geography of rock 'n' roll, but Alex Gonzalez says that his band Maná, based in Guadalajara, seeks nothing less than to conquer the musical world. “Maná has always wanted to be a popular band like the Beatles were," he says, speaking of his group in the third person, as if it is an independent force with a will of its own.
Manámania—which does have a nice ring—may be a way off, but the supergroup comparison is not that far-fetched. In 1994 Maná was the first band playing rock en español—Spanish-language rock—to have a gold album in the United States. The quintet, which forges a catchy rock-reggae fusion that recalls the Police in their prime, is approaching worldwide sales of 2 million for its latest album, Sueños Liquidos (WEA Latina), and is in the midst of a yearlong four-continent tour, complete with screaming teenage fans.
Maná is at the forefront of a U.S. boom in Latin music that really shouldn't surprise anyone: After all, Latinos will be the nation's largest minority by 2005. What is surprising is the richness of the Latin music scene, which has grown to include pop, hip-hop, punk, and heavy metal alongside more established styles such as baladas, Tex-Mex, salsa, and banda—not to mention the enduring popularity of traditional mariachi, ranchero, and corrido music.
Still, as a trailblazing rock en español outfit, Maná has confronted a few obstacles in its ongoing conquest of gringolandia. Even in L.A., where a huge Latino population supports several all-Spanish radio stations, a group that now has two gold records doesn't get much radio play. "A lot of kids who listen to rock in English also love to listen to rock en español, but they don't listen to the Latino radio stations here because the stations just don't play it," explains Gonzalez. "They play either ballads or Mexican regional music or Tex-Mex or salsa. And that's fine—but there still isn't much support for rock en español."
Why not? One simple reason is a generational difference in musical tastes. The older Mexican Americans who run the stations have been slow to embrace the new sounds, and surely the lack of interest runs both ways. To young listeners of the Mexico City hip-hop band Plastilina Mosh, Mexican banda groups in their matching cowboy getups must seem as cheesy and alien as, say, the Oak Ridge Boys are to a Snoop Dog fan.
However, the traditional corrido style has struck a chord with many younger urban Chicanos, who can relate to the genre's glorification of the gun-slinging rebel loner. "In the days before telephones and mass media," Sam Quinones writes in L.A. Weekly, "the corrido. . . was the people's tabloid, telling the tall tales of legendary revolutionaries and notorious bandits. In recent years, the corrido has been transformed into the narcocorrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, with themes of drugs, violence, and police perfidy, and an abiding admiration for the exploits of drug smugglers."
As often happens, the collision of cultures and their musical styles is yielding exciting results. The Latin rock boom is being fueled by many young musicians like Gonzalez who have one foot in Mexico and the other in the States. Gonzalez, 29, lived in Miami until he was 15, then moved to Mexico City, where he says he was "blown away" by the richness of Mexican art. A kid who grew up on the classic rock of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and "all the new-wave stuff that was happening in the early '80s—the Police, Joe Jackson, the Clash, Blondie"—suddenly was exposed to Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, and other Latino legends. Bob Marley and other world-beat musicians further broadened his horizons. Now he and Fher—Maná's singer and co-songwriter—mix all these influences in their music.
Part of the mix for Maná and other rock en español bands is a strong strain of political activism. The Mexico City hip-hop collective Molotov became one of the few bands to cross over to English-language radio in Los Angeles with the Spanglish track "Voto Latino," an outrageous, in-your-face shout of ethnic pride: "I'll kick your ass yo mismo / Por supporting el racismo." The Grammy-winning Argentinean rockeros Los Fabulosos Cadillacs paid tribute to Chilean folksinger Victor Jara in the 1995 song "Matador," recalling his torture and death in 1973 at the hands of the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship.
Maná's lyrics touch on social issues in a less incendiary way, but often carry a strong political and environmental ethos. The band founded an environmental organization called Salva Negra (Black Forest), which they continue to fund, and formed alliances with Greenpeace and Amnesty International for its current tour. Gonzalez credits Fher, his songwriting partner, with expanding the band's social consciousness. In '92, Fher wrote the lyrics for a song that asks where, if we keep on destroying our planet, will our children play? Audiences reacted positively, Gonzalez says, and "we thought, if this is just one song, imagine if we started getting involved a lot more, doing a lot more things and helping in a bigger way."
Can a rock band change the world?
"Change the world? No," says Gonzalez. "But it could change a lot of people." He pauses, then adds: "I think maybe John Lennon could have changed the world."