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In Any Language, Mana Is a Handsome Hit

Pop music: The Mexican band, with impressive album sales, is at center of commercial movement in Spanish rock.

August 21, 1998|YVETTE C. DOSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent Sunday night on "Loveline," the nationally syndicated radio show that airs on KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles, co-host Adam Carolla was making pronouncements about rock en espan~ol.

"It's the future," he said to co-host Dr. Drew Carey, after announcing to listeners that the Mexican rock group Mana would be joining them later in the show. "You'd better get on board because that's what's going on, especially in this part of the country."

One male and two female listeners called in to say in accentless English that they consider Mana, which plays today-Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, one of their favorite bands.

"Wait a minute," Carolla asked one of the young women. "What's your background?"

Later, addressing Mana's obvious appeal, Carolla quipped: "I used to make fun of Latinos. But I've rethought it and I'd like to join the band."

That pronouncement, though made jokingly, is indicative of how surprised some seem to be that a band singing in any language other than English would get any real attention in this country.

"In Latin America, most of the music you hear on the radio is in English," says Mana's 29-year-old drummer, Alex Gonzalez, "so why can't we come here and play music in Spanish?"

The answer is, they can. Some may be surprised, but pop and rock in Spanish is a growing commercial force, and Mana is at the center of the movement.

The U.S. sales of their five albums exceed 2.5 million copies, and the Universal dates, which sold out in three hours, kick off the band's most extensive U.S. tour. The 35-city trek is scheduled to wind up Oct. 10 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

Mana's fifth album, 1997's "Suen~os Liquidos," just went gold by selling 500,000 copies in the U.S. This is the second U.S. gold album for the group, whose 1995 set, "Donde Jugaran Los Nin~os," was the first by a Latin rock band to achieve gold status in this country.

Despite its commercial success, however, the band is not without its detractors.

Its members--lead singer Fernando "Fher" Olvera; bassist Juan Calleros; guitarist Sergio Vallin; and Gonzalez--are all squeaky-clean handsome men in their 20s and 30s with chiseled features and salon-beautiful hair. Teenage girls love them and their poppy, Police-like style of music, but many who consider themselves real rock en espan~ol fans disparage the group.

Some members of the L.A. rock en espan~ol community who have been working to increase Spanish rock's visibility and sales in the U.S. say that Mana is all style and no substance--and nowhere near as vital as critically acclaimed rockeros such as Cafe Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad or Tijuana No.

Mana's members, however, say they can't be bothered by the criticism. All from middle-class families, they say they've invested too much in the band and worked too hard and have come too far to worry about nit-pickers.

"We don't care what the critics say," says Vallin. "In the end, there's good music and bad music, and what's important is that you make good music. There are enough people that like what we're doing."

Fher, who pens most of the band's songs, said he recognizes that some of Mana's strengths, such as its soft, melodic tunes and appeal to teenage girls, are also its biggest liabilities. "I overheard a friend recently," said Fher, drawing a parallel. "He was telling his daughter, a very smart and very beautiful young woman, 'Too bad you're so pretty. No one's ever going to take you seriously.' "

Still, the group isn't without its adamant supporters, some of whom are in a position to retool the definition of rock en espan~ol even as that definition is being created.

"While many Latin rockers fail to recognize Mana as a rock band, they clearly opened the door for many harder-sounding bands," says Frank Barbano, publisher of Retila magazine, a 4-year-old L.A.-based Latin rock magazine with a print circulation of 50,000. "Almost in spite of their detractors, Mana went on to sell multiple gold and multiple platinum in several countries."

Mana came together in 1986 when Fher and Calleros, who were in a band called Sombrero Verde (Green Hat) that had been performing in Guadalajara since the mid-'70s, put an ad in the paper announcing auditions for a new drummer. Gonzalez, 15 at the time, applied for the job, and he has been with Mana ever since.

The most recent addition is Vallin, who, at 24, is the group's youngest member. He is 14 years younger than Fher, who still looks youthful at 38. Maybe it's the group's wide age range, or the recent personnel turnover (two other members recently left to form another band, Azul Violeta) that contribute to Mana's continuing appeal to fans after 12 years.

"The band continues to attract new listeners throughout the rapid changes that the industry has seen," says Barbano. "Most importantly, Mana has ensured its status as one of the most influential Latin rock bands in history. We all have more to learn from Mana . . . perhaps more than our laser-focused rock brains will permit."

* Mana plays today-Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 980-9421; also Oct. 10 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, 8 p.m. $25-$50. (714) 704-2400.

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