With song titles such as "Rats Don't Have Wings" and "I Wish I Were Alcohol" and "Tie Yourself to a Broom and Fly Far Away," Jaguares could be a Sex Pistols tribute act. Of course, it isn't. The band is one of Mexico's biggest-selling, most-admired, most-cherished national treasures, which has created its empire (which is what it is) by playing and appealing to mostly native-speaking, umm, ears. All of Jaguares's songs, its CD liner notes and even its Web sites are in Spanish. And hopefully, they stay that way. There's just something funny about a serious rock band's singing, "Tie yourself to a broom and fly far away." "Amarrate a una escoba y vuela lejos" sounds so much better.
"We're not comfortable singing in another language but our own," says Jaguares drummer Alfonso Andre. "It's great for us to come and play in as many countries as we can, meeting people from other cultures, but we're not considering singing in English just to make it 'big.' "
That's the good news. The bad news is the band is, in any language, a little corny. Built on heavy atmospherics, straightforward tempos, subdued guitar work, fantastic voice melodies and, well, lyrics that translate poorly, the Jaguares sound is what most popular, solid American rock isn't. Not self-important. Rather, self-importante.
In other words, if Jaguares didn't sing in Spanish, critics would be calling the band a Kansas or Rush wanna-be. But since it does, it's loved. "Psychedelic spirituality," says the Utne Reader. "Tropical psychedelia," says the Village Voice. "Like the ancient smoke from temples long forgotten," says the L.A. Weekly. Truth is, Jaguares's music is likable, melodic and delightfully intricate, but pretentious enough to gag a Genesis fan to death.
It could simply be that the idioms in the Spanish lyrics just don't translate well into English. This could also explain why the band has not and will not attempt a crossover into the U.S. market $agrave; la Ricky or Jennifer. The lyric "I wish I were alcohol to evaporate inside of you," from "I Wish I Were Alcohol" ("Quisiera Ser Alcohol"), sounds even more gruesome than living the crazy life.
In fact, the only thing that suggests Jaguares may be opening up to American audiences is this year's tour, which is the most extensive U.S. trip the band has ever undertaken. Houston, with its large Latino population, is only one of a couple dozen markets of similar ethnic composition (New York, Chicago and L.A., the majors) on the band's itinerary.
"We're seeing a lot of different faces," says Andre. "They're more Anglo. A bigger English-speaking audience as opposed to all Spanish."
Formed about three years ago by Saul Hernandez, the Mexican equivalent of Morrissey, Jaguares (pronounced "Ha-gwar-ays," which is "The Jaguars") has cut three records, one studio and, its latest, a live/studio double CD, Bajo El Azul de Tu Misterio ("Under the Blue of Your Mystery"). (Ooooh!) Before creating Jaguares, Hernandez was lead singer and lyricist of the immensely popular Caifanes. His metaphysical and mystical lyricism appealed to people close to their Mexican-Pre-Spaniard heritage. Which is also why average English-speaking Joes just wouldn't get Jaguares.
"Since we're all from Mexico, magic and mysticism, we feel it," says Andre. "It's in the earth and the roots. I think that's a feeling for everyone. Spirituality is lacking in the new ages. It's so materialistic.
"We go back to our roots. We're based on it. We don't lose touch with that. And it's part of all humans, not just Mexicans."
What's most noticeably American about the band is its sonority. While Jaguares's press notes and even drummer Andre say the band's sound is a mix of American and ethnic instrumentation and attitude, it's really not. The only things "ethnic" or "Mexican" about it are the occasional flamenco riffs or percussive interludes. What with Sabo Romo on bass, Cesar Lopez and Jarris Margalli on guitar, Hernandez on vocals and Andre on drums, the entire arrangement is as square as anything on commercial "alternative" radio. It's just that, nine-tenths of the time, Jaguares's stuff is much better crafted. And in Spanish.
Music with non-English lyrics has never really been a liability for out-of-country acts. Stereolab and MC Solaar, which both perform primarily in French, Pizzicato Five (in Japanese) and, for years, Santana (some Spanish) are perennial critical and popular darlings. Jaguares has that same potential.
"We grew up listening to other music in other languages," says Andre. "The feeling [of the lyrics] still comes across. And if people are really into it, they can go look it up."
Each band member, says Andre, was influenced by much of the same music. Songs from England, Cuba, Brazil and the United States could all be heard on Mexican radio, which never had the definitive structure of radio north of the border. That Jaguares's music sounds the way it does now is a natural byproduct of that musical environment.
Though Hernandez writes all the lyrics, establishes most of the melodies and is clearly the leader of the band, Andre, who is the only remaining member of Caifanes, says the rest of the group brings the music to life. "We try to get the song to where it should be," he says. "Forget about ego, or 'my part has to be the most important part.' Everyone gets involved.
"We work as a band. Every band member has the same importance. Each person counts. It's not like one makes all the decisions. We make decisions as a band. We take positions together. We all do interviews. Not just [Hernandez]."
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But Hernandez is mostly why Caifanes and Jaguares have sold more than five million records altogether. Why fans sing along at live shows, like on "La Celula Que Explota" ("The Cell That Explodes") off side one of Under the Blue, when Hernandez's voice is drowned out by the crowd on the part that goes, "Sometimes I don't feel like seeing you. / Sometimes I don't even want to touch you." He's also why fans dedicate highly produced Web pages to the band. He's their living myth.
Hernandez has only recently returned from battling a throat virus, which kept him out of the spotlight for nearly three years. Just as Orpheus went into the underworld to retrieve his dead wife but lost her and returned a greater poet, Hernandez has been to Hades and back and is just now cashing in on his status as some sort of Christ figure. His long black hair, chiseled features and tailored suits only add to the charm.
Like a Jorge Luis Borges novel, most of his songs involve metamorphosis, land, water and animals, things that aren't endemic to Mexican soil, but which sound a helluva lot cooler and more beautiful being sung about in the Mexican tongue -- like rats without wings and people tied to brooms.
Jaguares performs Tuesday, October 12, at the O.K. Corral, 5900 North Freeway. Call (713)692-8484 for more information.