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Pop Music Review

Socially Minded Mana Spreads the Word

Musically, the Mexican quartet may seem fairly mundane, but their message strikes a chord.

October 12, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a cultural phenomenon, Mana really does seem sent from heaven.

The wildly popular Mexican quartet, which opened a four-night run at the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday, looks and acts like a rock band, all long hair, leather, electric guitars and tattoos. But its intentions are entirely wholesome.

Instead of expressing generational angst, they dedicate songs to departed fathers and grandfathers. Instead of glorifying a dissolute life of drugs and sex, they use their stardom to promote social justice, world peace, environmental protection and safe sex.

Thousands of young fans seemed swept away Thursday by the band's hippie-era call for community and commitment. They earnestly sang their hearts out on faithfully memorized songs, including half a dozen from Mana's recently released "Revolucion de Amor."

The sea of bright, inspired faces during this modern-day love-in was enough to soften any cynic's soul. OK, so it's not too subtle. And the message may sound retro, especially with the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" playing at the end of the two-hour-plus concert, following the crowd's deafening demands for two encores.

But Mana is the only contemporary Mexican band that can sell social values along with millions of records. You have to welcome their success at a time when so much pop culture is self-centered, materialistic, crude or just plain empty.

Musically, however, Mana is much more mundane. Singer-guitarist Fher Olvera, drummer Alex Gonzalez, lead guitarist Sergio Vallin and bassist Juan Calleros were supplemented by veteran keyboardist Juan Carlos Toribio and an additional guitarist. But the only one who truly shone instrumentally was Gonzalez, a pint-sized but powerhouse and precision percussionist nicknamed "El Animal," a crowd favorite with his stick-twirling, jumping-jack antics.

The group's instrumental shortcomings were nowhere more noticeable than on its finale performance of "Corazon Espinado," the Grammy-winning hit from Santana's monster 1999 album, "Supernatural." Santana's genius is certainly hard to replace, and Vallin's guitar solo simply paled.

Except for El Animal, the members of Mana were relatively subdued on stage. They exhibited surprisingly little spontaneity, with most songs performed perfunctorily. The unimaginative video effects, far too amateurish for a group of this magnitude, added to the static feel because the images rarely moved in time with the music.

People obviously don't look to Mana for virtuosity and complexity. They respond to its simple message couched in a soft melange of rock-tropical-reggae rhythms, its tender love songs, its appealing vocals and its strong streak of Mexican nationalism.

Singer-guitarist Olvera, the group's central figure, deftly wielded Mana's power to proselytize.

Which makes one worry about the group's high-profile sponsorship of a U.S. beer company. Isn't liquor the scourge of the Latino community, contributing to the domestic violence that the group condemns in its music?

Somehow, Mana's new song "Justicia, Tierra, y Libertad" loses its lofty ring when you add a commercial twist: Justice, Land, Liberty and Coors Light.

Mana, today and Sunday at Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 622-4440.

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