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Mana Plays Own Blend of Rocanrol

Latin Band Defies Purists by Offering a Mix of Riffs and Tropical Sounds

August 22, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOLLYWOOD — The founder and lead singer of Mexican pop-rock band Mana figures his group is in good company when it is criticized for sounding too commercial.

While bad-boy rock en espanol groups including Caifanes and Maldita Vecindad became Mexico's hard-rocking counterparts to Seattle grunge-rock bands, Mana hasn't veered from its catchy blend of rock, ska and reggae, and other tropical sounds.

That recipe helped Mana sell more than 2 million copies of its 1992 album "Donde Jugaran los Ninos?" (Where Will the Children Play?) and has put its latest, "Cuando los Angeles Lloran" (When Angels Cry) over the 500,000 mark in the U.S. and Puerto Rico since it was released last year.

It also has prompted chiding from rocanrol purists who prefer their rock en espanol unadulterated by Latin music strains and thus dismiss Mana's commercial pop blend.

Singer and lyricist Fher thinks Mana is right in line with another famous genre-hopping band.

"We've blended the old sounds of Latin America with the new sounds of pop," Fher, who was born Fernando Olvera but who uses the single moniker professionally, said last week at a nightclub here. "Our critics have come down on us much like critics came down on the Beatles when they first came to the forefront of pop music.

"We have been the most experimental band in Latin pop, using a distinctly Latin sound in our music," said the soft-spoken Fher, whose singing voice is reminiscent of Sting. "We have opened the doors for others to follow."

Mana's popularity has had a ripple effect in Latin America, where it has become more common for radio stations to play, say, Argentine trio Soda Stereo as well as U2, or Maldita Vecindad along with Jane's Addiction.

In January, Mana picked up its first Grammy nomination--for Latin pop performance, vocal or instrumental--for "Cuando los Angeles Lloran," a socially conscious album whose title track is a tribute to slain Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes.

The band's existence was threatened in 1994 by the departures of guitarist Cesar Gonzalez, known as Vampiro, and keyboardist Ivan Gonzalez (no relation), who quit over musical and personal differences.

The remaining members--Fher and bassist Juan Calleros, with whom Fher formed Mana in 1986, and drummer Alex Gonzales--searched Mexico, Spain and Argentina for a new guitarist who could help toughen the band's music while retaining the sensuality of its popular sound.

They settled on guitarist Sergio Vallin. On the latest album, Vallin sounds as comfortable with singer-songwriter stylings as he is with hard-rock assaults, his work including heavy-metal trills, scratchy riffs and funky grooves, as well as large portions of classical-guitar strumming.

Touring in support of the current album, Mana will play at the Anaheim Convention Center for a recently added show tonight, and a show Friday that is sold out.

"This [last] album has showed how we've evolved musically," said Cuban-born Gonzales, who writes most of the band's music. "It's also a launching pad for our next album."

Although Mana has played to sold-out sports arenas in Latin America, the band, like most Latin rock groups, hasn't broken the language barrier and found airplay on mainstream rock or pop stations in the U.S.

"If Mana, one day, thinks about the so-called crossover [to singing in English]," Gonzales said, "we want to already be in a position as the best band of Latin America."

* What: Mexican pop group Mana.

* When: 9 tonight and Friday.

* Where: Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave.

* Whereabouts: Across from Disneyland. Take the Katella exit from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway. The center is half a block west of Harbor Boulevard.

* Wherewithal: $25-$50.

* Where to call: (714) 999-8950.

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