La Mafia, Redux?

On the north side of the city, near where I-45 crosses paths with the 610 Loop, there's an unassuming one-story brick and aluminum-sided office building sitting just off the feeder road. From the outside, it doesn't much look like the centerpiece of a budding entertainment empire. But that may be exactly what it is. These small structures are the offices of Voltage Entertainment Agency and Voltage Discos; they're also the headquarters of Fama, a seven-piece Hispanic pop band that's presently Voltage's top act. That status is reflected in a string of six consecutive Spanish-language albums, every last one of which has gone platinum (which on the Latin charts denotes sales of 100,000 and up).

The Voltage offices have a hallway wall lined with gold and platinum records and framed posters that advertise up-and-coming members of the Voltage stable: Tierra y Sol, Juan P. Moreno, Stefani, Los Palominos, Elida y Avante, AKaliente! Its industrial gray carpet is trod on by singers who own publishing companies, receptionists who write songs and accountants who play bass. The mix of business and creativity gives the whole operation the feel of a mini-Motown. And just as Berry Gordy did with his Detroit hit factory, Voltage president Henry Gonzales wants to have an unmistakable impact on music fans nationwide. He states his mission in the music industry plainly: he wants to produce ten more La Mafias.

La Mafia, of course, is the Houston-born band of Tejano stars whose international popularity exceeds that of any other local musical export, save possibly ZZ Top. And Gonzales knows something about what it takes to produce a La Mafia: for 18 years, he and his brother managed that very band. He split from the fold in 1994 to branch out on his own with Voltage. Two years earlier, he'd signed Fama, a bunch of Houston kids who by that time had already been kicking around for a little while. And though Fama may not be a second La Mafia quite yet, the group is definitely knocking hard at that door.

Fama got its start in 1989, when brothers Javier, Oscar and Edgar Galvan recruited some friends to start a garage band -- literally. Their first practice site was the Galvan family's east-side neighborhood garage, where tires and a metal can subbed for the drum kit the group lacked. They didn't know how to play their instruments, but an uncle agreed to teach them the basics, and a parent pitched in a drum kit. Soon, Fama began playing local clubs and festival dates.

"We did it all over Houston," Galvan says. "Then we started spreading out -- the big tour. You know, Rosenberg, Pasadena .... "

A mere eight months after the band first got together, Javier, the group's singer, primary songwriter and nominal leader, produced two singles that grabbed the attention of CBS Discos (now Sony Discos), leading to the recording of a debut album, Amor, Amor, Amor. The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.

Javier Galvan is a nice kid with an easy laugh who looks like he just got spat, cleanly, out of some Gap/rodeo vortex. Sitting in the Voltage office with brother Oscar, Henry Gonzales and marketing director and Fama point man Jesse Rodriguez, he's wearing expensive lizard skin cowboy boots, pressed blue jeans, a bright red cowboy shirt, a gold chain around his neck and a Rolex on his wrist. From the walls, five iconized Elvises look down. What they see is a 26-year-old filled with the surety that he's on the path to success, a preternaturally confident performer who's completely lacking in self-consciousness as he describes the clean-cut, all-American look that Fama tries to convey.

"The image of the group is what we call the 501 look," Javier says "The young, hip look." How young? Well, not teenagers, perhaps, but young enough: bassist Oscar is the group's oldest member at 28, while drummer Ruben Enriquez, at 22, is the youngest.

As for the 501 image, that's tailored to fit the sound. Fama, after some experimentation, has settled into what Javier Galvan calls an international pop style, meaning carefully produced, ballad-heavy albums that, for better or for worse, have been stripped of most recognizable regional identifications. "Tejano" may be the stylistic tag liberally applied to most Texas-based bands who sing in Spanish, but that, says Galvan, is a misconception.

"Being out of Texas, you're automatically labeled Tejano. Tejano music is more progressive," says Galvan. "It's like comparing your rock to pop, where Tejano would be rock and international would be pop. We're not putting Tejano down at all, because that's where we started, but you can't mention the word Tejano in California because they will not play you. It's like a prejudice. It's good music, but it's just a little more progressive, more for musicians."

Javier Galvan writes most of the band's songs, and describes his typical lyrical motivation like this: "I've always written music since I was little, because I was always falling in love. At first they didn't make sense. Now they make a little bit of sense." Last year, he came home from the annual BMI awards with a Songwriter of the Year title under his belt for "Amor Perdoname." That song, he says, "is more of a tropical, international flavor song, and that song got played a lot, it still gets played, it was the most played [Latin] song in the U.S. last year. It made a lot of money, and we got a lot of recognition because of that song. That's just what you've got to do, you've got to adapt to what the people like without getting out of your style. Even before we ever recorded, I was writing more of an international flavor-type song. It's those type of songs that have gotten us where we're at."

Where the band is at right now is standing on the verge of penetrating the fabled crossover market. A new CD, Lagrimas De Alegria, has been certified gold mere months after its release, and the group is considering including an English-language tune on an upcoming CD.

"It's in our future," says Galvan. "It's just a matter of someone taking that initiative and attacking that market."

The career and martyrdom of Selena, and her music's consequent entry into the pop charts, has made a difference. "It's opened a lot of doors," Galvan admits, "and that is a lot of help for us to get into the English market."

Promotion is regarded as the key, and Fama works it as hard as any band in any style: six months a year on the road, across the United States and into Mexico, with hopes to penetrate Central and South America soon. When Fama isn't on the road, they're recording or doing promotional appearances. The group films a video for every new single, mostly in Miami, and is a steady presence on talk shows and video programs distributed throughout the Americas by Spanish language networks such as Telemundo and Univision. Bud Light recently sponsored the band to the tune of $350,000 over a six-month period for billboards, TV spots, radio buys, posters and print advertising. A Reebok endorsement provides the band with cleats and clothes for its regular charity softball and basketball games. Now, says Galvan, Fama is on the verge of signing with the William Morris Agency, which should be able to place the band on tours with the likes of the Gipsy Kings and Jon Secada. Fama members also talk about wanting to get into the movies.

Cutting-edge Anglo bands often try to distance themselves from the careerist component of pop music (usually just after they've made enough money to comfortably retire on), but Fama has a more straightforward attitude about what they're doing. Galvan guesses that Fama may have ten good years left, during which he'd like to see the band "conquer the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America."

But after that, there's still a life to live. "I don't want to tour for the rest of my life," Galvan says. "I want to do as much as I can in the music business, but I like the recording end of it, the producing. That's really what I want to do after we've already done what we're going to do. It's also a fallback for us after we retire."

Galvan laughs about the group's retirement plans and his own budding publishing company, but you can tell he's dead serious about all of it.

"I'm not trying to put anybody down at all, that's not our style," he says, "but a lot of people, a lot of bands, they just go out and do their gigs and all, and they don't plan. It's just like working somewhere. You have to set yourself up for later years, and that's what we're doing. We're trying to play our cards right to have something for later years."

Fama performs at 4 and 10 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at the Texas Cultural Pavilion, 13700 Beechnut, 564-727. Free.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brad Tyer