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Staples braces for magnitude 4

It takes a big-name act like Maná to fill the arena four nights running. What? Haven't you heard of Maná?

September 19, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

This week, one act is poised to make history in Los Angeles with a series of concerts over four consecutive nights at Staples Center, the biggest musical event by a Latin artist at the arena.

So who is this monster box-office attraction?

Shakira? Daddy Yankee? Santana with a raft of star collaborators?

No, it's a scruffy Mexican rock band largely unknown to non-Latinos in the U.S. that performs exclusively in Spanish and shuns the crossover path normally taken by Latino artists seeking wider audiences here.

The band is Maná (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable), a quartet from Guadalajara that has sold more than 22 million records in its 20-year career and has steadily -- almost stealthily -- emerged as one of the biggest pop music acts on the planet. The group starts a four-night engagement at the 19,000-capacity arena Thursday that industry experts are calling record-setting.

"It certainly sounds like landmark status to me," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert-industry tracking journal. "Most acts do one night [at Staples]. An exceptional act does two. For a band to do four is quite an achievement. That's really unprecedented."

Maná has accomplished the feat, which ties the Staples record Neil Diamond set in 2005 with four consecutive performances, with a straightforward style that recalls its days as a garage band doing Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stone covers, traveling from gig to gig in a VW van that sometimes doubled as lodging. The four musicians still dress the part of bad-boy rockers -- long scraggly locks, strategically placed tattoos, denim or leather pants -- but they rarely deviate from the inoffensive musical formula that has brought them so much success around the world, a Latin-rock blend of electric guitars, uncomplicated salsa rhythms, romantic lyrics with melodramatic overtones and a soft-sell approach to social causes (the ecology, immigration, the welfare of children) that doesn't alienate nonbelievers.

"We've remained very faithful to our own artistic instincts," said lead singer and songwriter Fher Olvera, who forms the nucleus of the band with Cuban-Colombian drummer Alex González. "We've seen a lot of musical styles come and go, but we don't get on the trend train. In the end, people really appreciate that, because they see that we're honest about what we're doing and we give it our best."

Fher, as he is known, spoke by cellphone recently as the band traveled by bus from Phoenix to Fresno on the current leg of a tour in support of their latest album, "Amar Es Combatir" (To Love Is to Fight), released by Warner Bros., the group's longtime label. The tour also will take Maná to New York, Chicago and Miami, before stops in Central and South America.

But for the sheer size of Maná-mania, there is no city like Los Angeles, where immigration has created a critical mass of fan support ranging from recent arrivals to assimilated Mexican Americans.

"For us, Los Angeles is the most important city in the world," said Fher, noting the band has recorded several albums here. "I remember the first time we played here about 15 years ago at a small club for 500 people. Nobody knew us then, but something really interesting happened, because our popularity just kept growing and we developed a very special chemistry with our L.A. fans."

As far as the general public and the mainstream industry is concerned, however, Maná may as well be an obscure, underground band.

The singer recalls attending a private Grammy party in New York a few years ago, somewhat overshadowed by international stars such as Bono and the Eagles. But the waiters and bartenders ignored the big-name stars and kept lining up for autographs from the members of Maná.

"Everybody was looking at us, like, 'Who are these guys?' " laughed Fher.

But the singer wasn't laughing this year when he learned that the Recording Academy would not televise winners in any of the Latin categories for the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony. All the Latin trophies were handed out before the telecast, which Fher considered a snub. The band decided not to attend the ceremony and didn't go to pick up its third Grammy for best Latin rock album.

"It's like throwing a party and telling Latinos they have to stay in the backyard," said the singer. "That's not how it should go. They should invite you properly or not invite you at all."

Fher, an immigration-reform advocate who recently met to discuss the issue with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, compares the band's search for artistic recognition to the political drive for legalizing Latinos in the U.S., saying both are experiencing "a very interesting historical moment." But he still worries that some barriers keep both the band and its fans in a cultural ghetto, no matter how big they get.

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