Salseros and Tejano acts dominate the Latin radio market here, but Rock en Espanol is making inroads. Led by a Guadalajara-based foursome called Mana, the international movement is gaining time on the airwaves and space in the CD racks. The future, it seems, will belong to Latin groups who'd rather rawk than croon.
Mana blends socially conscious rock with reggae, calypso and salsa -- think The Police in Espanol -- and the catchy, user-friendly mix has attracted both critical praise and fans enough to fill stadiums. In 1993, the group's second album, ADonde Jugaran los Ninos? went multi-platinum and multi-gold in countries such as Chile and Spain; in the States, word of mouth helped it go gold. Billboard gave Mana Best Pop Latin Album and Best New Latin Pop Artist awards in 1996 -- the same year the band earned a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Pop Performance. And in October, the band's Suenos Liquidos sold an impressive 178,000 copies in its first week of release in the States. The CD debuted at no. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin 50 chart and at no. 7 on its Top 200 Albums chart -- the highest-ranking Rock en Espanol album ever.
Fittingly, the group's current tour of North America is the most extensive ever attempted by a Rock en Espanol group; they'll be the first to play cities such as Toronto. When the tour ends in December, Mana will have been on the road for more than a year, and will have performed for more than two million fans on four continents. The group has even made a tentative stab at attracting fans of Rock in English: The import version of Encomium, a Led Zeppelin tribute album, features Mana's Spanish-language, mariachi version of "Fool in the Rain."
Yet Mana didn't set out to set the world on fire. "We just love playing music," says drummer Alex Gonzalez. "That's what it's all about in this band. That's what it's always been about. We never set out to achieve anything."
Well, except for widespread social reform: Mana leads Latin bands in championing social and environmental causes. In 1995, the group created Selva Negra (Black Forest), a self-funded, nonprofit organization intended to increase environmental consciousness in Latin America. Like REM and 10,000 Maniacs before them, Mana has tour agreements with Greenpeace and Amnesty International; both organizations will have booths at all shows on this tour.
"I think it's cool to go to a concert and be able to find out about environmental issues and human rights," says Gonzalez, who also expresses concern about drug addiction, homelessness, abuses of women's rights in Latin America -- and, for that matter, about almost every other social evil known to mankind. "We're going into a new century," he says. "It's kind of sad to see that people still have such a primitive mentality toward racism, domestic violence and child abuse. We've advanced technology in a lot of ways, but in human values and morals, we're still very primitive."