In the decade Maná have established themselves as the world’s biggest rock en español band, critics (including myself) have stigmatized the Guadalajara foursome for not being the most credible ambassadors—imagine if Bon Jovi’s romantic stadium anthems became the most recognizable symbol of American rock during a time when a new awareness of all things American was unfolding in the world.
Maná write pop hits—some you can sing along to for years, others that’ve become as stale as the nachos they were originally served with. So call them what you want. But first you should see them live, and pay attention to what they’re saying on and offstage.
Although aware of them since “Como Te Deseo” started getting played on radio and in clubs across the Americas back in ’93, I didn’t become a secret admirer until three years later, when they released their fourth album, Cuando Los Angeles Lloran. At a SoCal arena concert, while France was flexing military muscle by detonating nuclear bombs to the dismay of the global diplomatic community, Maná projected on large video screens an image of then French prime minister Jacques Chirac morphed with the face of a pig.
Lead singer Fher, in high keening vocals that will forever be compared to Sting’s, sang the title track of their 1992 debut, ¿Donde Jugarán los Niños?, under a sign that read “Chirac Asesino.” The direct reference to Black Sabbath’s anti-military anthem “War Pigs” was as unmistakable as Maná’s tropically inflected pop-rock. And remember, this was during those fat-economy, pre-teenpop years, when Rage Against the Machine and U2 were just about the only big Anglo bands saying anything blatantly political. Considering that most of Latin rock culture was stumped by authoritarian governments afraid of the music’s power to unite youth, a Maná concert was inevitably a Spanish-speaker’s first real rock ‘n’ roll experience in his or her own language. Fher is Mexico’s Steven Tyler, Sergio Vallín his Joe Perry. And when was the last time you saw a 10-minute drum solo at the arena level?
If at times their message comes off clichéd (protecting the environment, workers’ and immigrants’ rights, peace and freedom), Maná still remain a refreshing alternative voice to Latin pop’s vapidity. In the age of Shakira/Marc Anthony crossover, that Fher continues to sing in Spanish is a statement in itself. In 1996 the group launched the nonprofit foundation Selva Negra to help indigenous peoples of Chiapas and threatened ecosystems in Mexico. For Latin pop stars—especially stars whose current album entered the Billboard 200 at number 22—such a thing is unheard of.
Two songs on their new Revolución de Amor, “Tierra, Justicia y Libertad” and “Pobre Juan,” would seem subversive on commercial radio if they weren’t coming from Maná. With his trademark guitar on the rumbling, Zapatista-inspired “Tierra . . . ” Carlos Santana repays the group for writing and collaborating with him on Supernatural‘s Latin hit “Corazón Espinado.” A bluesy, acoustic ballad, “Pobre Juan” works in the spoken-word tradition of classic Mexican corridos. Neatly tying a knot with the sad migrant story in “El Muelle de San Blas” from 1997’s Sueños Líquidos, Fher sings about a Mexican immigrant to Los Angeles who disappears trying to cross the border. Elsewhere, Rubén Blades adds yet more political edge, and Ozomatli vocalist Asdru Sierra puts his stamp on a salsa-hip-hop hybrid.
I almost came out of the closet two years ago, when Maná toured with Santana during the months before Supernatural became a super hit. Maná’s MTV Unplugged had recently hit the streets, so their popularity was soaring. At a Santana stop at the Anaheim Pond, to my astonishment, Maná (who had taken up the Zapatista cause) were the main draw. After their set, the arena began to empty out, leaving the legendary guitarist to play his future hits only to aging hippies and one music critic getting ready to ask the world: How can’t you be a Maná fan after that?
Maná play Madison Square Garden October 28.