Is Mana for real?
After selling more than 2 million of "Donde Jugaran los Nin~os?" (Where Will the Children Play?), its third record, the Mexican group in 1992 became the most successful Latin American pop-rock group ever.
But the band's many detractors called it a fluke and adopted the group as their favorite punching bag, the ultimate example of how a rock band shouldn't sound. Mana's harmless, catchy melodies and lightweight blend of pop and Caribbean rhythms didn't please those enamored with, say, Maldita Vecindad's bad-boy approach.
With its follow-up album, "Cuando los Angeles Lloran" (When Angels Cry), Mana believes it has answered the critics.
"We broke our own formulas," says singer Fernando (Fher) Olvera in a phone interview from Mana's office in Guadalajara. "Nobody was expecting this change. Basically, we're still the same Mana, but we're going through a funky, soulish stage. We want to have some fun and be a little louder."
Doing that meant overcoming a few hurdles. Lead guitarist Cesar (Vampiro) Gonzalez and keyboardist Ivan Gonzalez (no relation) quit the group last year due to musical and personal disputes--a move many thought would be the beginning of the end for the band.
But Olvera and drummer Alejandro (Alex) Gonzalez used the opportunity to reshape the group's sound, searching Mexico, Spain and Argentina for a new guitarist who would add some needed toughness. With 23-year-old Sergio Vallin in place, they cranked it up, borrowed a little from James Brown and Sly Stone and recorded the new album, undoubtedly the best in the group's successful but controversial career. (The band also added bass player Juan Calleros.) They even recorded a cover of "Fool in the Rain" for the Led Zeppelin tribute "Encomium," a move that further surprised both fans and critics.
Initially, fans were a little put-off by the changes, Olvera admits.
"In fact, the first single [the funky "Dejame Entrar" (Let Me In)] didn't even make it into the Top 10 here in Mexico," he says.
Soon, though, things went back to normal--Mana still sells out shows anywhere from Argentina to Puerto Rico, and so far the album has sold 500,000 in the United States alone, an unprecedented figure for a Latin rock band outside of Latin America.
After finishing its current world tour, Mana will try to establish itself in Spain, playing small venues like in the old times.
"We really need to feel close to the people. We need that energy to recharge our batteries," Olvera says.
"If we fail or never repeat the success of our previous album, that's OK. We've already made some money. But we are happy with our music, and it's good to make art just for the sake of it. It would be a while before any other Latin American group tops what we did."
* Mana will perform at the Universal Amphitheatre, Friday through Sunday, 8:15 p.m. Tickets, $35 - $40. (818) 777-3931.