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Alex Gonzalez has a lot to say. The prodigious drummer for gigantic Mexican rock band Maná has every right to be jaded. Been there, done that -- he could be talking shit about other Latin rock bands, the haters. But instead, he calls from a tour bus to talk about how great it is to play in Phoenix and how his band can help the much hyped but still-sputtering Spanish rock scene in the U.S.
It's October 1, the eve of the first of 18 shows and the band's tour bus is leaving Los Angeles for San Diego to open a second leg of a U.S. tour in support of Grammy-winning Revolucion de Amor, the band's latest album.
Gonzalez, a garrulous Cuban-Colombian, is often tabbed as band spokesman, not just because his English is perfect -- but because he is passionate and outspoken, about not only his music, but also that of his brethren in the Latin rock scene. He's loyal despite constant, pervasive criticism by fans and musicians about how Maná (pronounced Mah-nah) is not "rock enough," or about how their songs "sound the same." It's interesting to hear this when you consider that the band never set out to be anything more than they are right now -- a band playing music to people who really enjoy it.
For many fans in the U.S., it's hard to fathom just how enormously popular the band's is on a global scale. In some countries, Maná is compared to U2 and the Police. The pop sound the band lifts from those forebears, mixed with Mexican folk and Afro-Cuban rhythms, produces a music that is almost too perfect, too clean. But that seems to suit fans just fine.
They're the band hard-core rockeros love to hate but will still pay to see -- and sing along with only when no one is looking. And Maná has the uncanny ability to make an entire dance floor or concert hall sing along and bounce in unison to practically every one of their songs. Sure, it's a corny '80s dance style, but it's still a lot of fun. Picture a young Courtney Cox dancing with Bruce Springsteen circa 1985 and you get the idea. And, chances are, if you've partied in a Mexican disco, where rock en español is dance music, you've probably bopped to their tunes.
They've also begun to slowly penetrate the U.S. market among non-Latinos, which as for most Latin American bands is a relative weak spot. Their promise here began when Carlos Santana, at the height of his 2000 resurrection, tapped Maná to co-headline his Supernatural tour. In a few predominantly-Latino markets on that tour, large portions of the crowd would leave after Maná played -- no "Black Magic Woman" for the too-cool-for-school alterlatinos!
"People that have gotten to see us. They have liked something, be it the music, the melody or even the lyrics," Gonzalez says of Maná's American experiences so far. "So I think Maná has done a crossover in a sense of us coming here and bringing part of our culture and sharing it with everybody and tagging along new people to our shows. It's pretty cool, you know."
The drummer has a vision for the perpetually fledgling (seems that way, anyway) music scene his band, El Tri, Caifanes (now Jaguares) and others helped pioneer in the '80s and '90s.
"There's a transition because there's a new generation of Latino kids growing up here in the United States that are listening to music that, when their parents were their age, weren't listening to that type of music. So eventually there's going to be a culture change," Gonzales says. "You know, kids that are listening to, maybe Foo Fighters and, let's say Radiohead, or whatever. [They] are gonna also be listening to rock en español as opposed to listening to maybe the music our fathers or parents listened to."
He sounds more like a Latin studies professor than the drummer for thebiggest band in Latin music today. He doesn't have to give a fuck, really. But he does.
Fans aside, he has a simple message for all the young bands out there today: Get to work, punks! At least if they want to consider themselves "punk" anyway.
"We had to go to Mexico City when we started, you know, to get our name out there," says Gonzalez, born in Miami and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city and where the band hails from. "We got in a van and we started playing all over Mexico. And that's what bands have to do."
Try telling that these days to the next big thing on MTV en Español and you might get a blank stare. Tune in and you'll see bands with exorbitant big budget videos. Chances are they've never played potentially crucial markets like Phoenix. Maybe they're too arrogant too soon, in Gonzalez's estimation.
"I really don't believe that they should think that or expect that," he says. "You know, there's a lot of lot of work involved and that has to come from them. They just can't turn around and wait for things to change overnight magically."