Rock en Español

The new Latin American sound—Spanish lyrics and in-your-face politics

| November/December 1998

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."

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