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The Burden of Success

Long criticized for its obvious Police influences and earnestness about social and ecological issues, the rock en espanol band Mana rolls on with another album and a spot on Santana's summer tour.

June 19, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are three kinds of people in Los Angeles: those who love Mana and admit it, those who love Mana and deny it because they're afraid of what their friends will say, and those who don't know what the heck a Mana is. Only the last category is shrinking.

Mana is the most popular rock en espanol band in the world, with more than 6 million albums sold since its debut in 1986, 1 million in the U.S. alone, according to SoundScan. Shore Fire Media, the press agency that represents the Grammy-winning band in the U.S., says most of those sales have been in Southern California and the Southwest.

As of next month, even more rock fans will be exposed to Mana, as the band co-headlines with Carlos Santana in an 18-city U.S. tour, which should greatly expand Mana's fan base beyond the reaches of rock en espanol. The tour includes four concerts at the 14,000-capacity Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim.

The idea for the two groups to tour together grew organically out of a friendship forged between Fernando Olvera, the lead singer for Mana, and Santana, whoinvited Olvera to sing on two selections on the guitarist's just-released album, "Supernatural."

According to Mana drummer Alex Gonzalez, Olvera and Santana "just hit it off" and decided themselves that a joint tour was a good idea--an understatement as far as the Arrowhead Pond is concerned. The first three shows were almost instant sellouts and the fourth is expected to sell out shortly. Only Barbra Streisand, in 1994, has sold out more shows (six) at the Pond during a single engagement.

Similar Heritage, Different Audiences

Allison Winkler, director of press and Latin events for Nederlander Concerts, the promoter for the Pond shows, attributes the rapid sellouts to the two acts having vastly different audiences, in spite of their shared Mexican heritage.

"There are many Anglo Santana fans who've never heard of Mana, and many Mana fans who are too young to have heard of Santana," Winkler said. "It's expanding the audience for both of them. If you think about it, this is the ultimate crossover concert."

For those unfamiliar with Mana, it might be easy to assume that the success of this tour comes from piggybacking with one of rock's legends. But Mana has long demonstrated its box-office punch, including a six-week stint in Los Angeles last year in which they sold out two shows at the Universal Amphitheatre, two more at the Greek Theatre, one show at the Pond and one at the House of Blues.

The Guadalajara-based Mana, formed in 1986, achieved superstardom in Latin America and Spain when its 1992 album, "Donde Jugaran Los Ninos?" (Where Will the Children Play?), sold 3 million copies worldwide, making it the top-selling Spanish-language rock album of all time. In 1995, the group became the first rock en espanol band to sell more than 500,000 copies of an album in the U.S.

While widely adored, Mana has in recent years been the victim of a rock en espanol backlash, criticized in the media and on the street for sounding too much like rock band the Police, an accusation they do not deny. But Mana's music also draws on traditional Latin American sounds ranging from loping cumbia backbeats to haunting pan flute melodies.

Mana's eloquent lyrics speak often of political issues in Mexico, ranging from teen pregnancy and crime to the destruction of the environment, which has become an obsession for the group. Mana founded and directs an ecological foundation in Mexico, Selva Negra.

But in a rock en espanol climate that is ever more raunchy and hard-core, Mana and its causes have become sort of the Jackson Browne of Mexico, which is why when you ask kids in Los Angeles if they like Mana, they will often hesitate before answering, to make sure you're not trying just to make fun of them.

Mana Mockery From Molotov

The height of Mana mockery came two years ago, when irreverent Mexican rock-rappers Molotov chose to make fun of a Mana album on their debut album cover. In a wordplay, Molotov named its debut album "Donde Jugaran Las Ninas?" (Where Will the Little Girls Play?); the sleazy cover photo implies the "girls" will "play" in the back seat of a car.

"That didn't bother us," drummer Gonzalez said at a recent interview in Los Angeles. Laughing, he added, "We're actually really good friends with those guys."

Gonzalez spoke in a lounge at Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood, where the band was mixing the final version of an acoustic performance for MTV Latin America's "Unplugged" program. The nine-song "Unplugged" performance will air Monday on MTV Latin America, which is only available in the mainland U.S. on a handful of cable systems. The Mana show may air in the States on Telemundo, according to the network.

The performance has also been parlayed into a 14-track album, to be released stateside Tuesday. The video of the concert, which will be unveiled with much ceremony next week at the MIDEM Americas music convention in Miami, will be available for purchase on videocassette and DVD, making Mana the first rock en espanol band to have a release on the latter format.

In answer to the omnipresent post-Ricky Martin question--will Mana record in English?-- Gonzalez was clear: "We have no desire to do that," he said.

However, sources close to the label say Warner Bros. Records is "in conversation" with the group and their label, WEA Latina, about putting out an English-language album. Said Gonzalez, "There's no pressure on us to do anything in English. Maybe with the next album, we might do some English. It's a market we've never tapped, but we don't think we need it. Everyone buys Mana's albums, whether they understand Spanish or not."

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