Fher Olvera, lead singer of Mexican rock quartet Maná, lived with the music for weeks. Then a story came to him: A medieval nun cloistered behind convent walls falls deeply in love with a priest. Her passion is finally punished with death.
"I can\'t say exactly where I got the idea to write a song about this," Olvera says. "But I\'d read a while ago a passage by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the poet nun who cut her hair and who fell profoundly in love. And I also saw a movie where the nun and the priest fall in love and they\'re shot to death. It\'s very magical how the music just leads you in different directions."
Music may lead Maná into sometimes surreal subject matter - but the essence of the Latin rock band made up of Olvera, drummer Alex Gonzalez, guitarist Sergio Vallin and bassist Juan Diego Calleros has remained constant for the past 20 years.
No other Spanish-language recording act sells albums with the volume and consistency of Maná. There is no bigger-selling or -touring Latin rock act in the world. Maná has sold more than 25 million Spanish-language albums in 40 countries, according to Warner, with 5 million of those in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Every single studio album, beginning with the act\'s 1992 breakthrough "Donde Jugaran los Niños," which sold 770,000 copies, has sold more than half a million units in the United States and Puerto Rico (save for 1995\'s "Cuando los Angeles Lloran," which sold 303,000).
At the heart of Maná\'s success is its sound - lyrical, eminently melodic lines anchored by Olvera\'s signature high, raspy tenor and the frequent use of Caribbean beats intertwined with power drums and guitars. Often set to romantic lyrics, Maná\'s songs have struck a universal chord.
On the group\'s new studio album "Drama y Luz," slated for release April 12 on Warner Music, Maná finds itself pushing boundaries. An exquisite track that brings together Olvera\'s lyrics with the evocative music of Vallin, "Sor Maria" marries guitars and drums with lush, dramatic strings arranged by cellist Suzie Katayama, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"Drama y Luz" is the first studio album in nearly five years from the quartet, which hails from Guadalajara, Mexico. The set took more than a year to create; by the time Maná entered the studio last May, it had already recorded polished demos and pretty much charted the musical map for 11 of the 13 songs that would eventually make the album. But the intensely fine-honed recording and lyrical processes-documented in a "making of" DVD that\'s part of a deluxe edition of the album-were painstakingly minute, to the point that the release date was moved from fall to December and finally, to April. The band members announced the date change themselves on their website, Mana.com.mx.
"\'Drama y Luz\' won\'t be ready for the announced date," a letter signed by all four members read. "It\'s like taking a cake out of the oven before it\'s fully done. Our tradition has always been to fully cook our albums and with this philosophy we\'ve prevailed over managers and record labels."
"It was a hell of a deadline," says Olvera, a tall man with curly hair and a calm, Zen-like demeanor. "The company wanted the album out for Christmas. But we were wise not to sign a delivery clause. In the end, the company understood that Maná wasn\'t lazy, or getting drunk in the Bahamas. It\'s just that we . . . didn\'t think it was finished."
Maná\'s previous studio set, 2006\'s "Amar Es Combatir," sold 634,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The 2007 Amar Es Combatir tour grossed $35 million, according to Billboard Boxscore, setting the record for the highest-grossing North American tour by a Latin act since Boxscore began tracking data in 1991. "They\'re . . . crisis-proof," Warner Music Latin America chairman Iñigo Zabala says. "It\'s a situation unique in this marketplace."
IT\'S A SECRET
While it\'s hard to pinpoint just what makes Maná tick for so many, everyone agrees the secret-trite as it may sound-lies in the music.
But people still get things wrong. "Everything on Wikipedia, for example, is wrong," drummer Alex Gonzalez says. "But Wikipedia wouldn\'t let us go in to change things, so we always say that if people want to know the real Maná story, they need to go to our website."
Mana.com.mx links to the band\'s Facebook page, which has 2 million-plus fans, and to a Twitter account with 50,000 followers. The tweets are succinct and relate entirely to band activities. "We update conservatively," Gonzalez says. "People lose interest if you start posting a bunch of BS." Although each member of Maná is a star in the Latin world, none of them has his own Twitter account.
Indeed, in a Latin music industry dominated by solo acts, Maná is not only a rare group but also one that has managed to remain cohesive after nearly 20 years.
Although Olvera and Gonzalez tend to act as the band\'s spokesmen, all Maná media and appearances feature the entire group, and all artistic and business decisions are subject to consultation with and approval of all four members.
Initially created by Olvera in the late \'70s, Maná\'s early lineup included bassist Juan Diego Calleros and his brother Ulises on guitar, and in 1986 added Gonzalez-a dynamo drummer of Cuban and Colombian heritage-for the group\'s self-titled debut on PolyGram. By the time of the band\'s sophomore album, 1989\'s "Falta Amor," its first with Warner, Gonzalez and Olvera had taken over as the group\'s sole producers and writers. A year later, Ulises Calleros stepped down to become the group\'s manager-a post he still holds-and Sergio Vallin, a virtuoso with a background in classical music and rock, stepped in.
Today, the group\'s easy familiarity is apparent during a listening session held in a suite at Miami\'s Epic Hotel that begins with a viewing of the DVD. The 40-minute movie was directed by Mexican filmmakers Ivan Lopez Barba and Ruben Bañuelos, who installed hidden cameras in the studios where the band recorded, in Los Angeles, Miami, Brazil, Mexico City, Guadalajara and the group\'s own studio in Puerto Vallarta. The final edit also includes fragments caught on personal cameras. Gonzalez and Vallin, for example, are shown recording the same piece of music with a multitude of different instruments until they achieve precisely the right sound. Even when it came to mastering the album, Maná worked with two different engineers, who each provided a final master for the band to choose from.
"We even used analog tape on \'Lluvia al Corazon\' and \'Clandestino\' [the last two tracks recorded], and you hear the difference," Gonzalez says. "We wanted to do it, and how cool that we can do it if we feel like it. We have no one controlling either our artistic vision or our budgets." Since 1995\'s "Cuando los Angeles Lloran" Maná has paid its own recording costs.
"Our productions are very expensive and we don\'t measure them," Olvera says. "Many artists don\'t do it that way because they don\'t want to spend the money, but we want to make it as good as we can. That\'s why we pay for it, not the company. We don\'t even buy Evian. We don\'t drive Ferraris. We spend all our dough in the best studios and on the best guitars. The industry is down, but still, this album is costing 30%-40% more than the last one."
All songs on "Drama y Luz" were penned by some combination of Olvera and Gonzalez, who as usual produced the album, and also by Vallin, who for the first time served as co-producer. Ironically, the first single, "Lluvia al Corazon," was the last song to make it onto the album, recorded only in January after the band deemed the set not "cooked" enough. Written by Olvera, it\'s an uptempo power-rock track that will premiere on pop radio stations around the world-more than 500 at press time-at a precise, yet-unannounced hour on March 14.
The track, which the group will perform live during the Billboard Latin Music Awards on April 28, is a departure from the midtempo rock that has defined many of Maná\'s biggest hits. "We felt it was the strongest, most impactful track," Warner Music Latin America VP of marketing Gabriella Martinez says. "And we felt it reflected the evolution of Maná but with the same magic that\'s characterized the group."
One of the songs that Maná will likely perform on tour is "Latinoamericano," an anthemic track penned by Gonzalez-the only U.S. citizen in the group-that is a call to action against racism and discrimination and the only overtly social or political song on the new album.
Maná is one of the pioneers of social conscience in Latin music. The group\'s Selva Negra Foundation, created in 1995, works specifically with environmental efforts, including reforestation throughout Latin America, the upkeep of two turtle habitats in Mexico (more than 1 million of the creatures have been released to the sea), construction of low-income housing and work with multiple native Indian communities. Now, Maná is in the midst of its most ambitious environmental campaign, working with the Mexican government to create mandatory environmental and ethics classes in elementary school curriculum.
While Maná\'s message is subtly found in many of its songs, there\'s nothing nuanced about "Latinoamericano," which Gonzalez began writing in 2009. It dovetails with the group\'s vocal support of the United States\' DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students.
"We don\'t really talk about [U.S.] politics because we\'re Mexican," Olvera says, noting that the band has nevertheless met with politicians like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the matter. "But human rights are universal. And this is something we support. We\'re very connected to the Latins who are working here, who have left their families behind for a dream. We believe Maná has influence in this country, and can move its conscience a little bit."