When Mana arrives in Los Angeles to inaugurate its star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the members of the Mexican group will be treading familiar territory. Though founded in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and initially building a fan base by touring Latin America and Spain, the group made Los Angeles its northern home base in the early 1990s, breaking through in the United States to a degree no Spanish-language rock band had done before, or since.
“It’s like our second hometown,” says drummer Alex Gonzalez, who along with frontman Fher and bass player Juan Calleros has performed in the group since its inception in 1986. (Lead guitarist Sergio Vallin joined in the mid-1990s.)
“It was more than 20 years ago that we started playing all the small clubs in L.A., to maybe 200 or 300 people,” Fher recalls. “And then through all the years we were working and working, and growing and growing (elsewhere) in the United States. We didn’t know it was going to happen like this, though.”
Mana made L.A. history back in 2012 when it sold out Staples Center for the eleventh time, a record that took a Taylor Swift-sized juggernaut to break. The group has won four Grammys, seven Latin Grammys and logged six straight No. 1’s on the Latin album chart. 2006’s “Amar es Combatir” and 2011’s “Drama y Luz” both breached the top five of the U.S. album chart; worldwide, the group has sold more than 40 million records. And it largely did this without any sort of obvious roadmap.
To be sure, Mana was hardly the first Spanish-language act to tap into the American Latino community, but there was hardly a real precedent or infrastructure in place for a pop-rock band en espanol to break Stateside.
|From left: Fher the frontman, drummer Alex Gonzalez, the band performs and meets with President Obama in 2012.
Award: Carlos Barria/REUTERS/Newscom; obama: MediaPunch/Shutterstock
“We would see other Mexican acts, even though they were doing very different types of music — people like Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandes, Los Tigres del Norte — where they would have these huge turnouts, thousands and thousands of fans in the U.S. singing along to their songs in Spanish,” Gonzalez says. “But in those days, back around ’93, there weren’t really that many (Spanish-language) radio stations that played pop-rock or alt-rock music. It was more traditional Mexican music, banda or salsa. There was very little space to be heard on the radio. So it was all about playing live, going to each city, word-of-mouth spreading.”
During Mana’s reign as a cross-border hitmaker, the presence of Latin music on the U.S. charts has undergone a whole series of shifts: From the rise of Selena to the Latin pop boom of Shakira and Ricky Martin or the reggaeton movement in the mid-2000s; all took place within the group’s tenure.
As for the band’s lasting influence, that’s a bit harder to gauge. Fher notes that Latin America has been churning out few new Spanish-language rock acts of late — though he cites Mexico City’s Zeo as a favorite counterexample. Like any group of its profile, Mana is hardly without detractors in Mexico, with objections coming from both sides of the rock-purist/Latin-purist continuum. Unbothered, Fher seems happy to split the difference; he was never concerned about the band’s categorization in the first place.
“We don’t consider ourselves as a rock band, at least speaking for myself,” he says. “I think we’re more Latin fusion; we always wanted to explore all sorts of different Latin music (styles), we don’t care if it’s not rock. We don’t give a s**t. If we want to do something, we do it.”
|“I think Mana is a band that’s going to reach a third generation.”|
Indeed, the group has explored a plethora of styles throughout its career, with last year’s “La Cama Incendiada” offering a prime example. The first Mana album not produced by the band members themselves, the sessions were helmed by Miami pop veteran George Noriega. (“He refreshed the band in a very good way,” Fher says.) The album includes excursions into cumbia, bachata, reggae and balladry, with guest-vocalist Shakira providing an extra pop presence.
The record also features a cover of Los Tigres del Norte’s protest anthem “Somos Mas Americanos,” which casts a historical eye on anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. It’s hardly the first time that the group has broached hot-button political issues, whether domestic, U.S.-centric, or international (the group’s Selva Negra environmentalist foundation has been active for more than two decades).
“There are a lot of bands and artists that we admired when we were growing up,” Gonzalez says, “and be it Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, the Clash or the Police, they were often the bands that would always voice what they felt politically.”
“In Mana, we deal with a rainbow of issues,” Fher adds. “We talk about love, dreams, human rights, environmental issues, and of course political issues. You can never separate these issues from each other, because they’re all part of your life, your present.”
More specifically, Fher was one of the first Latin pop figures to address the race-baiting comments Donald Trump made in the infamous speech announcing his presidential candidacy, and he hardly hesitates to continue.
|Mana built a sizable Stateside audience through relentless touring in the early 1990s.|
“We’ve been working for more than 20 years for Latin rights in the U.S., so we were shocked when Trump started to use all of this aggressive speech,” he says.
“To be honest, I hadn’t heard a speech like that since Hitler. So what we’re proposing to all of the Latin community is to go out and vote. Because the Latin community has a lot of power now, and there’s only one way to change things.”
The band will mark the 30th anniversary of its debut album next year, and Fher and Gonzalez throw out a number of potential celebratory concepts. But most likely, the group will simply do what they’ve always done — pull together new songs while touring up and down the Western hemisphere.
“I think Mana is a band that’s going to reach a third generation,” Gonzalez says. “I’m gonna turn 47 this year, but when I started off with Mana I was 17. So kids that were 17, 15, even a little bit older back then, they have kids who are now teenagers who are listening to our music, and maybe their parents too.
“We still sell records, thank God.”