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 the biggest 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."
It seems ironic that the very bands that criticize Maná don't realize how much of a punk ethic this band possesses -- even if the music is the farthest thing from punk imaginable. You can argue that a crucial aspect of the punk mentality is that you shouldn't have to sell yourself. But, in a sense, it also means that you'll sacrifice for your art. And that's what Gonzalez and his peers figure is missing in today's Latin rock scene.
Here's a sacrifice Maná has made for their U.S cause -- it's forgone independence from the mighty corporate beast. Given the apathy and the trouble fostering a U.S. Latin rock enthusiasm, Gonzalez and company figure, if a Coors Light wants to come around and toss a few bucks their way, then so be it. Hey, if Kid Rock can take a Silver Bullet, then so can Maná. The band might have grown up punk, at least in their commitment to hitting the road, but it's also not dumb enough to turn down a bunch of free tour support.
"I think, you know, all those corporations want a piece of the pie," Gonzalez says of his band's ongoing lucrative four-year corporate sponsorship. "When you have bands that are selling big venues or even small venues, if there are bands that have a huge appeal to Latinos, these companies are going to want a piece of the pie.
"You know, it could have been Corona or a Latino beer company, but this was an American beer company. So that's the way to show that a lot of these American corporations know how potent, how big the market is and they want a piece of the pie. I think it's good.
"I think any band and any artist has the right to choose who he wants as a sponsor or if he doesn't want any sponsors," Gonzalez continues. "So if MTV wants to be part of the scene I think that would be fantastic. There's going to be a second MTV Latin Video awards that are going to be held in Miami. So, I mean, you can sense that things are heading in the right direction even though I think they're moving kind of slow.
"But if you compare things, we have to be honest. As for the magnitude of Maná, as far as the ticket sales and stuff like that, we're practically in a league of our own. Maná can open up the pathways for other bands. I mean, I think that's great. We'd love to see other bands enjoying the successes that we have enjoyed but, I mean, it's not a free ride."
Compounding that feeling even more is Mickey D's entry into the Latin rock game, yet another corporate carrot dangler. McDonald's, under the guise of raising scholarship money for young Latinos, is staging four concerts in November (curiously, New York, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles get to host shows, but not Phoenix) featuring Molotov and El Gran Silencio. The latter is an up-and-coming band that cleverly mixes norteño, cumbia and rock with socially conscious lyrics -- the kind of band you would expect to be happy playing a club for a few bucks. Instead, they recently refused to take less than what they were to receive in Los Angeles and elected to not play to an enthusiastic, albeit smaller, crowd in Phoenix. Apparently it's OK to whore yourself under the Golden Arches but not, it seems, to jump in a van like, well, a punk band.
Sure, it's hard to pass on the huge pull of some of the largest companies in the world. You really can't blame bands. But, hello? "When in Rome ... " anyone? It's no coincidence that the bands in the upper stratosphere of the Latin rock world -- Maná, Jaguares, Café Tacuba and usually Molotov -- have one thing in common. They hit the road, a lot. They all understand that nothing works better than playing to a growing fan base, especially when there really aren't radio stations playing their music.
"A band has to, ought to, promote itself you know. Get out there. No matter what," says Gonzalez. "Playing wherever you can. You have to put a lot of effort on your behalf."
In a bit of a forewarning, he adds, "You just can't leave things in the hands of others. If we would have thought that way, we wouldn't be here today, where we are."
And that's a pretty damn nice place to be.
In the end, it's ironic and unfortunate that it may end up taking Fortune 100 companies to actually deliver bands, like products, to fans in second-tier markets (yes, like Phoenix) that otherwise might have stayed in their comfortable digs in California playing the hell out of L.A., San Diego and San Jose.
It's enough to make you want to ask: Do you want a cold one with that rocanrol?
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