By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
What happened in the five years since the band's last trip to the studio? No more and no less than one successful album that they recorded in their sleep (1999's MTV Unplugged, which earned the band their fourth Grammy); meetings with heroes Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Benedetti, Sting, Paco de Lucía and others; and a few intense musical experiences around the globe, most notably in Spain and Turkey.
"We spent three months in the caves of Granada listening to the cantaores," Olvera says. "But not at the tourist sites--the real fucking thing! We were right there with the fucking gypsy sons of bitches...You go in and smoke a puff of hash, because that's your admission ticket, and [when] you enter the cave they're playing raw flamenco, cabrón--not the Gipsy Kings' stuff." The memory clearly excites Olvera; he's practically yelling. "And then we went to Istanbul and got some more hash, and nourished ourselves on Arab music, and brought a huge pile of records...I mean, five years like that, at our speed...it was like being on a bullet train. It all became like a huge musical diarrhea."
"Musical diarrhea." Having spent time with García Marquez and Benedetti, the best description Olvera can muster for the experience is a scatological one, and that laziness reflects in Maná's lyrics. As he sings in "Ay Doctor," "...nothing consoles me/ Not pasta, not ganja, not alcohol." Yes, pasta. Fortunately, Vallín's guitar and the harmonies of the chorus save a song only Maná could have pulled off. But if its lyrics remain Maná's weakest link, its intentions are unfailingly noble. Despite the group's success, Maná knows the earth is not a pretty place: "Give me faith, give me wings," sings González on "Faith," which he wrote. "Give me strength to survive in this world." Not exactly Octavio Paz--but nonetheless an oddly optimistic reminder that the world still sucks.
"We thought, 'If we made it to number one and the album wasn't even released," Olvera says, "then we can release the album everywhere and play everywhere." The plan worked. 1992's Dónde Jugarán los Niños? sold more than a million copies and established Maná as a Latin rock superpower. But César "Vampiro" López and Iván González were not happy, and they left in '93. Enter Vallín, an hidrocálido (a native of the state of Aguascalientes, even though he lived in Guadalajara) who got the job after the band reportedly auditioned 5,000 guitarists throughout the Americas. The new lineup worked even better.
It's the lineup that remains to this day. And its members couldn't be more different.
Calleros is courteous and affable but shy; he doesn't talk--period. Olvera, the voice and symbol of Maná, is neither a rocker nor a pop idol, but a gypsy. Give him a guitar, a woman and a few shots of tequila (Herradura or Patrón, not Cuervo), and he's a happy guy. González, meanwhile, is Olvera's perfect opposite: the aggressive and business-savvy band member; he's a Keith Moon with work ethics.
And after nine years, Vallín is still "the new guy" (Vampiro, now with Jaguares, is a tough act to follow). Nonetheless, Vallín's arrival gave Maná the electric power it needed; he's Steve Vai meets Santana meets George Harrison. He also gave the band its finest ballad, "¿Por Qué Te Vas?" ("Why Are You Leaving?").
Heartfelt and heartbreaking, "¿Por Qué Te Vas?" was borne of a series of recent tragedies within the band. First, several years ago, after nearly 30 years of marriage, Vallín's parents passed away less than a year apart, his father in a car accident, and his mother "from love." Adding to the pain, Olvera's girlfriend recently lost what would have been his first child in a miscarriage ("It was going to be my first chavito," Olvera says). In "Por Qué," Vallín's mother stares at a photograph of her dead husband, asking him why he left.
"We were recording MTV Unplugged," Vallín says of the day he received the phone call informing him of his father's crash. "There was no time to say goodbye." He starts playing with his fingers and is about to choke, then snaps out of it. "Anyway, 11 months after that, I saw my mom at the hospital. She had gotten sick soon after my father died. I realized the only thing that kept her in this world was her love for us. She was struggling. So I told her, 'You know what? Go. We're fine, you go, rest in peace. We have the basics, what you gave us. Now go.' So she left. And the song talks about a person saying, 'Why do you go, when I love you too much?'"
It's a simple but moving jewel, and it proves that, by the way, Maná now has three singers.
"It doesn't matter who scores," Olvera says. "The important thing is to win."