Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My History of Maná

How do I begin, in a blog about plants, to write about Maná?  Maná is my favorite band and has been for almost twenty years.  Last month I took Lee to hear Maná in concert in San Antonio.  I expected a good show, which is always dangerous, to have expectations and hopes about a concert in a huge venue like the AT&T Center, but I was blown away anyway by how amazing Maná was en vivo.  I've been in a Maná trance ever since, reliving their albums, blissed out on their beats, even as the awful mix of modern, whiny, white-people music plays at work, and trying to figure out a way to justify writing about Maná here, where I write about my garden and kitchen.

I could find a way to connect Maná to plants or cooking.  I could talk about how the band uses its money and super-group status in Latin America to fund Selva Negra, an organization that oversees conservation, habitat restoration, and social development projects in Mexico.  One such project teaches women in poor communities how to grow fresh vegetables using minimal water; another is dedicated to the reforestation and conservation of a rainforest in Oaxaca.  Or I could talk about Fher's lyrics, about all the images of sea and forest, sun and moon, and butterflies and birds that are in the songs of Maná.  Or I could point out that Maná is, more than likely, what is playing in my kitchen when I am washing greens or making pesto or frying okra, that the opening notes of each Maná album transport me back to one of the kitchens of my adult life.  Or I could just say that, for the past few weeks, as I've sat on a cinder block in the shade of the front porch with my travel clock, waiting to move the garden hose to the next plant, I've been thinking about where I was when I fell in love with each of Maná's albums, and allowing, in the slowness and heat of July, each of those images to develop into a snapshot.

I heard Maná for the first time when I was 18.  It was January of 1993, I was a freshman in college, and winter term had just ended, bringing back to campus all the students who had the fortune to spend that cold month somewhere other than northern Ohio.  Among those returning from the south was my friend Natasha, who had spent the month in Guadalajara and brought back a CD that was huge in Mexico at the time, Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?  I'm not sure if I was hooked on the album from the beginning, or if that came later, once Natasha and I were roommates sophomore year.  I know that at some point I was spending more time with the CD than she was, and would use any cooking excuse, from baking apple pie in the dorm kitchen sophomore year to mixing granola in the Fairchild Co-op kitchen junior year, to borrow and play that CD.  Most of all, I remember the small kitchen in the floor of the house on North Main Street that Sara, Dominic, Natasha, Spike, and I shared senior year, where one Saturday I baked several chocolate layer cakes from scratch for our "special meal" at Third World Co-op.  I had the album on repeat all day and, to this day, whenever I hear the opening beats and Yay oh oh of "De Pies a Cabeza," I remember that day spent drinking coffee, eating chocolate cake batter, and bopping along with Maná.  Soon after that, I finally bought my own copy of Dónde Jugarán Los Niños? and decided that I was Maná's biggest white-girl fan.

Falta Amor came next.  Now, here I have to point out, for historical accuracy, that Falta Amor was actually released two years before Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?  (And, for the real sticklers, there was an even earlier Maná album, self-titled Maná, that was released in 1987.  I have that CD – what kind of biggest white-girl fan would I be if I didn't? – but it is horribly dated and I think I only listened to it a couple of times before filing it away.  Luckily, the band changed labels and found their sound before Falta Amor.)  Falta Amor includes the band's first big hit, "Rayando el Sol," which is a lovely song.  But I have live versions of "Rayando" on other albums so Falta Amor, though important to me in the mid-1990's, is the one Maná album that is not in my regular rotation.  Because of which, it is also the album that is most located in a particular time and place to me, to my bedroom in the house on North Main Street in Oberlin, overlooking the ash tree, reading The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami.  Which sounds fairly magical, to be 21, listening to my new favorite band while discovering a new favorite author, but that moment was a bright spot, or more accurately a peaceful moment, in a spring that was otherwise defined by stress, from drama in the lives of my closest friends, from honors-thesis writing, and from the knowledge that I was about to be graduated from college with no earthly clue what I wanted to do with my life.

The next year, back in Oregon, back living with my parents at age 22, I got a job as a line cook at a café in Salem and a copy of the new Maná album, Cuando Los Ángeles Lloran.  Though I did a lot of baking that year, trying to make whole-grain muffins as good as those from the local Great Harvest, I'd listen to Maná upstairs, in what we called the "Nana room," the addition that had been built onto the house to accommodate my Nana's decline into Alzheimer's.  Nana had died two years earlier, but the memory of her, of what the disease had done to her, and to my mom, and to the family, remained in the house.  My favorites on the album were "El Reloj Cucú" and "Ana," both sad songs with distinctive intros that take me back to that rainy winter spent gazing out over the east-end pasture where the horses were grazing or staring at the river meanders on the inside of the CD cover.  At the time, my mom was getting into Afro-pop music, which provided a window out of her depression, so occasionally we would go to town and search the world music section together.  On one of those trips, I found a CD called Hace Mucho Calor that was a compilation of many Latin artists, including a cover of "Fool in the Rain" by Maná.  I've since lost that CD, but when I think of listening to Cuando Los Ángeles Lloran, I immediately think of Hace Mucho Calor, and of the two songs on it, #4 and #9, that I adored.  I discovered Soraya that year as well – amazingly, I first heard "De Repente" on my way home from work one night on the local AM radio station that usually played accordion-heavy norteño music.  And I've gotten into a few Latin acts since then, including Jaguares, Juanes, and Reik, but it's always been Maná that I come back to, Maná that I want to listen to over and over again.

My parents sent me Sueños Líquidos for Christmas of 1997.  I had moved to Austin that summer and was in the process of moving for the third time within the House of Commons.  House of Commons was, and still is, a vegetarian housing co-op in west campus.  Think big hippie house with 25 housemates, a Zen garden, under-maintained compost piles, lots of bike parking, and a clothing-optional pool.  I was moving from a third-floor double into Room 7, a second floor, L-shaped single overlooking the front garden.  "Lucky Room 7" is what Will, who had lived in the room before me, called it, assuring me that the room would be good for my sex life, and, indeed, within days of moving into Room 7, I had a boyfriend.  Jason, the new boyfriend, had a habit of walking into my room, which would too quickly become our room, when "Robame el Alma," #7 on Sueños Líquidos, was playing, so we called that his song.  Little did I know that, for the next seven years, he would robame el alma.  Note to self, be more careful with 7's.

By the time that Maná MTV Unplugged was released, Jason and I had moved out of House of Commons into an apartment on West 17th Street.  I had started graduate school at UT then dropped out after only a year and was bumming around on savings.  I had a community garden plot and a mountain bike that I painted tractor green.  My routine was to sleep late, go for a run, then make toast-tomato-cheese melts in the toaster oven and listen to Maná before heading to the Sunshine gardens.  The peaceful routine was a cover for my actual emotional state, that of acute anxiety.  I would stand in the front room of that brick-floor, cinder block apartment on West 17th, looking out the front windows past my motley assortment of potted trees and houseplants on the balcony, while trying desperately to become the way that I felt when I heard the line in "Desapariciones" that went por qué no todos somos iguales.  I loved that line, that rhythm, that emotion, and tried, over and over again, to hang onto it.  That was my peace in the otherwise anxious fall of 1999 – my first fall garden and a line in a Maná song.

Revolución de Amor was a revolution.  It didn't come out until 2002, a full five years after Sueños Líquidos.  In between the two, Maná released "Corazón Espinado" on Santana's Supernatural album as well as the Maná MTV Unplugged album, which they toured the US promoting.  There was talk of Maná crossing over into the US market.  With Revolución, that was over.  Maná was back to Maná, back to Mexico, back to its core fan base in Latin America.  Political, unapologetic songs and straight-forward rock beats.  I saw Maná live for the first time on the Revolución de Amor tour.  Jason and I drove to Dallas to see them.  I wish that I remembered the concert better.  I know that I enjoyed the show and that I was impressed with the band, with Fher's voice and stage presence, with Alex's relentlessness on the drums, with Sergio's skill on guitar.  They started exactly on time and played for three hours, and still I didn't want them to stop.  The concert felt like a huge pro-Mexico rally, complete with soccer balls kicked into the crowd, but, even as the tallest, whitest girl in my row, I still felt included because Fher's message was, as it always has been, Todos juntos.

Soon after Revolución came out, I moved into an apartment off North Loop, into my own space for the first time in my life.  So maybe Revolución spoke so loudly to me because I was undergoing my own quiet revolution.  At work, I was moving up the co-op hierarchy, from Jason I was slowly but steadily separating, and at home I was finally building my own space, in an apartment with almost no furniture and a bedroom painted purple.  The Revolución years were years of rediscovering the Moosewood Cookbook and learning to cook gratins and risottos from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and included the rainy-June summers of 2003 and 2004, when the counter between my small kitchen and living room was covered in ripening tomatoes.  In that apartment I learned to can tomatoes, figured out how to cook eggplant properly, in lots of olive oil, and organized many pizza nights for one.  I remember singing along with "Pobre Juan" and thinking about his disappearance into the borderland deserts of Mexico, as I set out my dinner – a salad, a few slices of a pizza (the other pieces carefully wrapped in foil for lunch tomorrow and the day after), a pint of homebrew beer, and my partially-smoked bowl of weed – on the floor beside the spot where I sat to watch free cable on my free TV.  All carefully timed to be ready just before the opening murder of an old Law & Order rerun or, better yet, an Inspector Lynly mystery. 

Amar Es Combatir came out just after I moved into this house.  I was still so attached to Revolución that I had trouble adjusting to the new album and told my mom that it was, Okay... just starting to grow on me, but soon I was looking forward to a sweet song in the middle called "Bendita Tu Luz."  Not long after that, "Bendita Tu Luz" was my new favorite song and Amar Es Combatir was my new favorite album.  Even now, ask me what one CD that I would take to a desert island, and I would have to say, Amar Es Combatir.  It's that good of an album, from one end to the other, and part of the happiness of Amar is that it transports me back to the early days in the house, before the foundation work and the failed attempts at rat extermination, before the brutally hot summers and equally brutal electric bills, to the early days with Lee, when the so many rooms of this house were not so many rooms to clean or to renovate or to cool but, instead, were so many places to have sex.  Afterwards, when the smell of cooking onion and garlic brought Lee into the kitchen to find me singing along with Maná, we would slow dance to "Bendita Tu Luz" and I would try, with little success, to explain the lyrics in English.  It's prettier in Spanish, I would finally tell him, It's a love song.

Amar Es Combatir has remained my most frequently played CD for the five years since it was released in 2006.  In the years between, Arde el Cielo was released, containing live versions of three songs from Amar and many classics from other albums, all sung to a huge, adoring audience in Puerto Rico, plus two new studio songs.  One of those new songs, "Si No Te Hubieras Ido," is the one that I most strongly associate with those years, when I was commuting to and from Del Valle to teach high school biology.  During the school year I was always working, either at work early to set up a lab, or at work late for tutoring, or grading papers at the kitchen table, or writing tomorrow's lesson at my computer late at night.  On the drive between home and school, when my failing car radio was cooperating, I'd listen to the Pop-en-Español station in hopes of hearing Maná.  One early morning, as I turned onto Airport Road, "Si No Te Hubieras Ido" began playing.  I turned up the radio and savored some Maná in the car.  For the rest of that day, and, really, for the rest of my time as a teacher, I survived with the help from a line from that song, El ritmo de la vida me parece mal.

Drama y Luz is the new Maná album, released this spring.  I listened to it over and over again for weeks, imprinting it on my brain for the concert.  I have favorite parts – the opening of the first song, the pace and chorus of "Mi Reina del Dolor," and the emotion in the No te olvido paloma, me haces falta mi vida lines in "Vuela Libre Paloma" – and I love to get "Latinoamérica" stuck in my head right before leaving for work in the afternoon, so I can sing it in the car.  But it's too early to say what memories will be tied to Drama y Luz because it's still the soundtrack of the present, of working swing shift and planning my weeks around watering days and our meals around mountains of okra, eggplant, and basil.  And the soundtrack of this brutally hot summer is further complicated by the fact that, since the concert, in my Maná trance, I've got the entire CD collection out and have been listening to all of them, but especially to Arde el Cielo, the live album, wanting to hold onto the energy of that night with Maná.

Going to a concert in San Antonio, at the AT&T Center, was a big adventure for Lee and me.  We're normally homebodies and nature people, more inclined to venture out to the Greenbelt during the day than to "go out" in the evening.  When we do go out, we arrive shortly after the doors open for the day at the co-op brewery, or when we do take a road trip, it's rarely to anyplace farther than one of the semi-local state parks, like Pedernales, an hour away, or McKinney Falls, which is practically in our neighborhood.  So the drive to San Antonio was an event for us, and the AT&T Center was immediately overwhelming in its size and crowdedness and layout – how do we get to the upper floor for the balcony seats?  Eventually we found bathrooms and the escalator to the upper level and made our way to our seats, which were high, so high, above the stage on what felt like the side of a steep, crowded mountain.  Then we waited, because I had told Lee that Maná would start on time, for the concert to begin, watching AT&T commercials in Spanish.  But, when the band started, all of that anxiety, of the drive, of the parking, of the huge, crowded venue and the seats on the side of a mountain, and of the wait, was gone within the first few beats of "Lluvia al Corazón."

The Maná concert was epic.  That's Lee's word – epic – but I can think of no better descriptor.  Weeks later, I'm still reliving it, still replaying the music, still in love with the band.  The design of the show was perfect, not that a rock concert is about design, but, in such a large arena, visuals and effects are part of the experience, and too often the screen and technical stuff detract from the music.  But Maná's people are obviously the best, because the video screens were visible but not distracting, so that my focus stayed on the stage, on the band members, while softer visuals floated across curtains on the stage.  More importantly, the visuals and effects, and all of the high-quality planning that obviously went into creating the show, was secondary to the sound.  The sound was the show.  From the first beats of "Lluvia al Corazón" to the final notes of "En el Muelle de San Blas," I was entranced, in it, not caring in the least that my seat was so high up or so far away.  The sound was so good that, at times, I just closed my eyes and existed in the music, soaking in Maná.  So good that I could feel the music, feel the bass drum, yet never reached for my ear plugs.  So good that songs that had never been my favorites on a CD came to life in concert.

Just as the band came alive in concert, with Fher clapping, Arriba, arriba, San Antonio! between songs, with Alex twirling and spinning and crashing down as he held the beat, or beats, even through the pauses and introductions, with Sergio looking especially tanned and fit as he leaned into each guitar solo, while Juan remained, as always, the steady bass player in the shadows.  They played several songs from the new album and many classic hits from past albums, including "Mariposa Traicionera," "Corazón Espinado," "Rayando el Sol," and "Labios Compartidos."  But they especially devoted time to the songs of Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?, which was where the crowd, a mixed-ages group of Latinos, many of whom had grown up listening to Maná or, like me, could describe the arc of their adult life set to Maná, went the most wild.  The energy in that huge space was amazing, with so many people singing along that Fher could simply point his mike to the crowd and the song would be carried.  Over and over again, song after song.  So I guess I can't point to any one thing – the sound or the skill of the band or the right mix of songs or the energy of the crowd – that made the concert so enjoyable.  It was all of those things, all together, merging with so many years of emotions and memories tied to listening to Maná.

I have only one, small complaint about the show, and that is that they did not play "Bendita Tu Luz."  When the lights came back on and the people in our row had started leaving, Lee and I looked at each other and asked, sadly, "Bendita Tu Luz"?  I really wanted to hear that song live, was looking forward to it throughout the concert.  So it was a disappointment to leave without hearing my song, but as we sat in the parking lot surrounded by cars playing every Maná album from Dónde Jugarán Los Niños? to Drama y Luz, I thought about the fact that there were simply so many good Maná songs that not all of them could make it into the show.  Or, perhaps, not playing "Bendita Tu Luz" was Mana's way of making sure that I will see them in concert on their next tour.

Until then, thank you, Maná, for so many years of great music.  Thank you for carrying me from dorm rooms to co-op houses to apartments to a house of my own.  Thank you for the inspiration and the support and the honesty.  But most of all, Gracias por tanto amor.