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Mana: Call It Fresa but Call It Success : Music: The Guadalajara group, branded with a lightweight pop rock image, seemed headed for failure. But today it's Mexico's No. 1 band.

November 11, 1993|ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Mexico, where rock musicians are divided between rockeros (the real stuff) and fresas ("strawberries," a disparaging term for lightweight pop-rock groups), Mana was destined for failure.

The group has made only three records since it formed in 1986, and its unchallenging material is the antithesis of the refreshing new Mexican rock that began flourishing in the mid-'80s.

While such groups as Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad and Cafe Tacuba were la vanguardia --the artistically serious bunch--Mana was the group that could provide wholesome entertainment for the whole family--not even your grandmother could say no to singer Fher's often corny, radio-friendly, medium-paced ballads.

Besides being termed fresa , Mana had the disadvantage of coming from Guadalajara at a time when Mexico City produced most of the country's leading rock bands.

But in the end, the provincia -rockers won, and won big.

After selling nearly 1.5 million copies of its last two albums, including 900,000 of the latest, 1992's "Donde jugaran los ninos?" ("Where Will the Children Play?"), and performing at packed stadiums in its country and other parts of Latin America, Mana can claim to be Mexico's most successful pop-rock group ever.

So the group--which headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on Sunday and the San Diego Sports Arena next Thursday--is hardly bothered by the criticism. For the band, popularity is vindication.

"If by fresa they mean a band that doesn't take any drugs, then we are fresas ," says singer Fher, whose real name is Fernando Olvera. "No matter how much crap they talk about us, today Mana is Mexico's No. 1 group and everybody wants to see us live. If the Mexican intellectuals called Octavio Paz a sellout after he won the Nobel Prize, what do you think they say about us?"

Says drummer Alex Gonzalez, explaining Mana's appeal, "Our music is vibrant, the vibra we transmit is so positive that our shows make you jump in ecstasy."

The group was formed in 1986 by Fher and bassist Juan Diego after their teen-age-oriented band Sombrero Verde disbanded in 1983. Keyboardist Ivan Gonzalez, guitarist Ulises and Cuban-born drummer Gonzalez completed the original lineup. Ulises was replaced last year by guitarist Cesar Gonzalez, who's known as "Vampiro."

Its melodic blend of pop, rock, ska, reggae and a vast array of tropical sounds is dismissed by purists as a commercial pop creation, but the group does have some real songwriting skills. It's already had four hit singles from the "Donde" album, and will pick four more in coming months from the remaining eight tracks.

"We are not another Mexican farce-group like Timbiriche, Garibaldi or Magneto, who give you one hit and the rest is rubbish," says Fher, who grew up listening to the Doors, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Marley, as well as such Latin stars as Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz and Santana.

"Our records are like shotguns full of ammunition," he says, concluding with a flash of regional pride. "If some people don't like us it's because they can't stand the fact that a Guadalajara group is kickin' everyone else's butt."

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