Mexican pop giant Maná hits a fresh wave of buzz with its edgier sound
Ask most Angelenos which band currently holds the record — along with Taylor Swift — for most sold-out shows at the Staples Center, and chances are they will name a legacy rock act like the Rolling Stones or U2.
They would be wrong.
The record-holder is Maná, the pop-rock outfit from Mexico, which has performed a total of 11 sold-out shows at the 18,000-seat venue over its career. This week, the band is back at Staples for two nearly sold-out shows that could put them ahead of Swift, at least until August when the pop star returns to L.A.
Together since 1986, Maná — composed of lead singer Fher Olvera, drummer Alex González, guitarist Sergio Vallín and bassist Juan Calleros — has sold 40 million albums and has 127 gold records, four Grammy Awards and seven Latin Grammys. The band mates have collaborated with Carlos Santana, gigged for President Obama at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and earned the sort of elder statesmen status that would allow them to continue filling arenas by playing their old hits.
But Maná is currently enjoying a moment.
The band’s ninth studio album, “Cama Incendiada” (“Burning Bed”) has occupied the top slots of the Billboard Latin Pop charts since its debut in early May and has been No. 1 for the last four weeks. The album’s first single, “Mi Verdad” (My Truth), a duet with Colombian songstress Shakira, debuted at the top of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart at the end of February, and it has remained among the top 10 Latin Pop Songs for 17 weeks.
“We wanted to do something new: works with new sounds, new elements,” González says via telephone from the Mojave Desert, where the band filmed the music video for “La Prisión” (The Prison). “There are funk elements. There are danceable elements. There is a lot of Latin rhythm. It’s got a bit more movement.
“It’s a very different record from what we did in the past, but it’s still Maná.”
The band certainly has a distinct sound, marked less by its music — a blend of pop-rock infused with Caribbean grooves — than by Fher’s rough-hewn vocals, which lend themselves equally as well to romantic ballads as they do to rock anthems. But over the course of its last few albums, that sound had become routine and the lyrics had grown increasingly angsty, leading to grumbles about the band losing its touch.
Some Mexican critics have even derided Maná as fresa (literally “strawberry” but slang for “rich and stuck-up”). “Cama Incendiada,” however, has received positive write-ups. Leila Cobo of Billboard described it as “an album full of party rock with a surprising edge.”
Part of that edge comes from the band’s political stances. They’ve never shied away from speaking out on difficult topics. In the late 1990s, it called for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to be tried. The group’s 1997 song “Me Voy a Convertir en un Ave” (I Will Become a Bird) is inspired by a work by Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti about a political prisoner.
In recent years, various members of the band have spoken in favor of immigration reform in the United States and against corruption in Mexico.
“Mexican politicians are an embarrassment,” says Fher (who goes by his first name) by telephone from Guadalajara. “Our political class has become completely dehumanized. When the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared, the politicians barely reacted — as if these 43 people didn’t have value. There’s a lack of empathy, and it’s really [messed] up. It scares me.”
In the new album, they recorded a rock-guitar-meets-Mexican-polka cover of “Somos Más Americanos” (We Are More American), a song by the San Jose-based norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, that serves as an anthem to immigrants in the United States. (Sample lyric: “They keep shouting at me to return to my land / Because I don’t fit here / But I want to remind the gringo that I didn’t cross the border / the border crossed me.”)
“Maná for many years has been asking for immigration reform,” says González. “We have long valued the role of immigrants in the U.S., who work so hard to seek a better life for themselves. The United States is a place that was formed by immigrants.”
“When we heard the Los Tigres song,” he adds, “we thought that it perfectly captured the Mexican experience. If there is a group that has narrated the story of the Mexican immigrant in the U.S., it’s Los Tigres del Norte. They are idols.”
Maná also looked outside the band for help putting the new album together.
Since it first burst onto the world stage in the early 1990s with its alt-rock-meets-Latin-pop album "¿Dónde Jugarán los Niños?” (Where Will the Children Play?), the band has always produced all of its own records. But this time, it decided to hand the reins over to someone else: George Noriega, the Cuban American producer who has produced acts such as Shakira and Gloria Estefan.
“With a lot of humility, we said, ‘Órale, you are now in charge,’” says Fher of the process. “We had good chemistry with him. We let ourselves be loved. And he gave it another color. It refreshed the sound.”
It also helped Maná hold on to its status as one of the biggest Latin rock acts of all time.
The band began life in the early 1980s in the musicians’ native Guadalajara as a group called Sombrero Verde (Green Hat), inspired by the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By the mid-1980s, the group had lost steam and various members departed, either to pursue other opportunities or go back to school.
All that was left of the lineup was Fher and Calleros. They put an ad in the newspaper for a drummer and hired González, who at the time was 15. (Vallín joined in 1994 as a replacement for guitarist César López, who left the group.) In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Maná released a pair of modestly successful albums that got them a fair bit of attention around Latin America. But it was the ska-laced "¿Dónde Jugarán los Niños?” — whose bouncy sound seemed to channel the Police — that served as the tipping point to international stardom.
Other highly successful albums followed: 1995’s funkier “Cuando los Ángeles Lloran” (When the Angels Cry) and “Sueños Líquidos” (Liquid Dreams), from 1997, with its flamenco guitar riffs. The band’s last album, “Drama y Luz” (Drama and Light), released in 2011, explored darker territory. It came in the wake of a number of personal losses for the band, including the death of Fher’s mother and sister to cancer.
Now Maná is ready for new challenges. The band kicked off its U.S. tour in San Diego last week and arrives at the Staples Center for shows on Thursday and Saturday. As always, it will be a spectacle, promises Fher: “We have a production designer from Belgium and the show looks beautiful — with incredible video and impeccable sound.”
And naturally, there will be at least one extravagant drum solo. González is known for his elaborate setups, complete with rotating platforms and other tricks. During the last tour, for “Drama y luz,” he popped open a drum head and pulled out a beer.
But he won’t say what he has in store for the Los Angeles shows.
“Let’s just say there will be a lot of surprises,” he chuckles cryptically. “We are building the circus, as I like to say.”
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
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