A Little Respeto

How Maná won the war for its reputation--without even trying

In the end, it may have taken Carlos Freaking Santana himself to put an end to rock en español's favorite sport, Maná bashing. For 11 years, the Guadalajara-based band has been among the genre's biggest punching bags, derided as fresas("strawberries"--softies) who make crappy music for preppy kids who don't know any better. The reason? For starters, Maná outsold everyone (16 million copies and counting) and became the most successful Latin rock group of all time, and it did so with a pop-heavy sound that drew comparisons to the Police--sans Sting. They were sitting ducks for sharp-shooting purists (including this writer) who never did quite understand what all the hoopla was about.

But that was all before Santana donated his golden guitar to the cause.

The rock legend toured with the band, then put his seal of approval on Revolución de Amor, Maná's first studio album in five years and, to no one's surprise, a commercial success already. The album made its August debut at the top spot on Billboard's Latin charts, and the band's concerts this month at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheatre sold out in all of 20 minutes. What may be surprising is that Revolución is also Maná's strongest album yet musically. Featuring Rubén Blades on the tropical "Sábanas Frías" ("Cold Sheets," arguably the best song on the album) and Ozomatli's Asdrúbal Sierra singing the chorus on the powerful "No Quiero Ser Tu Esclavo" ("I Don't Want to Be Your Slave"), it's a balanced offering of mild and hot, highlighted by guitarist Sergio Vallín's all-out style and with songs written by three of the members of the quartet. But it's "Justicia, Tierra y Libertad" ("Justice, Land and Freedom"), the track that opens the album with guest guitar from Santana, that has critics finally taking a second look at Maná.

Is it just us, or does the third guy from the left look like 
Ricky Martin will when the where-are-they-now? 
special airs on VH1 in about 10 years?
Is it just us, or does the third guy from the left look like Ricky Martin will when the where-are-they-now? special airs on VH1 in about 10 years?

Truth is, despite the rockeros' gripes (and the band's own limitations in the studio), Maná alwaysrocked onstage, could alwaysplay alongside anyone. It was the music itself--syrupy pop offered up at a time when the best in Mexican rock (Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, Café Tacuba) were busy making "proper" rock--that drew the barbs. Fher Olvera, the band's singer and main songwriter, says Maná always got a bad rap.

"C'mon, man," says Olvera (Vallín, bassist Juan Calleros and drummer Alex González round out the group). "The Beatles started out [with] 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'! 'Te quiero agarrar la manoooo...'--gimme a break! OK, great song, but in today's context it's a very corny thing. But that was Lennon as a kid, man--that was the way he expressed himself. [And] that's the process of a band. You start somewhere, ascend to a certain point and then you fall. It happened to everyone, and it'll happen to us."

Maybe, but not just yet. Revolución de Amor features plenty of the usual Maná, the catchy, leechy kind that rockeros hate--but this time it's done intelligently, with good taste and with a vengeance. It's a guitar-oriented album, for which the band tried more than 100 guitars and dozens of amps, and the result is an earthy, analog feel, one of Maná's main goals.

"We want to sound studio when we're live, and live when we're at the studio," Olvera says. "We want to continue making artisan music, organic, natural...We don't mind little mistakes here and there; you just can't dehumanize music. You wouldn't buy a painting from a guy who did the thing on a computer."

Maná is a band of contradictions: The pop world loves them as much as the rock world scorns them, but in that pop world, Maná is all rock, from its lyrics about women, alcohol and pot to its political commitment, something that the Latin music industry as a rule considers passé (proudly zapatistas, pro-labor and pro-environment, the band members have never been shy with their opinions). Fresas or not, Maná is more genuinely aware of the world's social and economic environment than many of the so-called "serious" bands out there.

And while they've broken sales record after sales record, they've done it on their own terms--literally. "We're not actors," Olvera says, dismissing suggestions that the band sings in English to boost its crossover appeal. Not that it matters--with Revolución de Amor, Maná is closer to a realcrossover than anyone else in the business: Sung entirely in Spanish, the disc debuted at No. 22 on Billboard's Top 200 chart.

Olvera and Co. are a contradiction musically as well. They bounce from sugary ballads to Latin fusion to reggae, pop and rock, never fully embracing any one style; that fickleness is only mitigated by the rare talent of two guys (Olvera and the Cuban-born González) who still don't quite understand they might be the best songwriting team in all of Latin pop music.

"We had so many songs [for Revolución], we almost released a double album," says Olvera, drinking red wine under a full moon next to the Mondrian Hotel's swimming pool. "But that would have been a mistake. We decided to take it easy and save the songs for later. But we've never been so fired up."

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