By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
In some parts of Mexico, Jaguares frontman Saul Hernandez is more popular than President Vicente Fox, political muralist Diego Rivera and his iconic artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. At least that was the suggestion last year, when a Mexican Web site asked citizens to vote for their favorite national figures of the last century. When the poll results were tabulated, Hernandez and the alternative-rock band that he fronts placed fourth. In a country where political leaders and artists are often revered as heroes, even saints, the ranking proved that Jaguares had really made it.
Drummer Alfonso Andre isn't entirely comfortable with that honor, however.
"I think that's way over the top," he says. "That poll was open to everyone, but I think a bunch of our fans got on there and took it over. When I saw us on the list with all of those people, who are really top figures politically, I felt really embarrassed. We are musicians. I don't put ourselves in that level, with people who work to change the world."
True, Jaguares has not changed Mexico's social or economic climate since the band formed in 1995; its activities have centered on selling records, playing concerts and, eventually, morphing into one of the nation's most visible musical groups -- a frequent headliner on tours that stretch from one end of the vast country to the other, including this year's multi-bill, Lollapalooza-like Revolución. But alongside artists such as Café Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad and other acts that have been building the Mexico City music scene since the late '80s, Jaguares has helped shift the perception of rock and roll in a conservative society that historically has tended to view the music as downright dangerous.
"Rock has always been like the ugly duckling of music in Mexico," Andre says. "In the '70s, it was almost banned from the radio and the media because of the youth movement in Mexico at that time. We had a terrible repression, and rock and roll has always been associated with freedom. If you had long hair, you were immediately a suspect of the police. But that stigma changed with time. In the '80s, when record labels realized that rock music was really a big business in Latin American countries that didn't have that oppression, that's when we were signed. We were just playing in the street before that, because no one would let us into their clubs.
"Now," he adds, "the police will still harass people, especially for the hair. But it's getting better, and I am sure it will get even better in the time to come."
For Jaguares, improvements have been a long time coming -- both at home and in this country's Latino community. Even though the band regularly sells more albums than any other rock-en-español outfit -- its third and latest offering, Cuando la Sangre Galopa, set sales records in its first week of release in both countries -- Jaguares has never enjoyed substantial airplay on Mexican commercial radio stations, which cater to listeners who generally fall into two stylistic camps: those who like traditionally influenced artists and those who prefer the glitzy pop-and-puff fare of the contemporary mainstream. The same is true in the U.S., where programmers are wary of scaring listeners off with a bold, heavy and non-traditional sound. So as Jaguares completes its thirty-city tour of North America -- a jaunt that brings the band to the Fillmore Auditorium on November 21 -- it will do so without much assistance from the custodians of America's airwaves.
"We have definitely built our fan base playing live," Andre says. "There are a couple of rock-en-español stations in Mexico that have caught on. The way it worked is that once we got so big, they realized they really probably should start to play some of our songs. That has not happened here in the U.S., but we're hoping it will. But if they never play us, we don't mind. We are used to it."
Whether or not a lack of radio play is to blame, the arrival of Jaguares in America has not been marked by the fanfare that has accompanied so many Latin-explosion artists over the past couple of years. Jaguares is not a crossover act, like Ricky or Christina or young Mr. Iglesias. It's a guitar-heavy and anthemic alterna-rock group that accents the familiar constructs of rock songwriting with an exotic, almost mystical flare. Jaguares is a little bit Carlos Castaneda, a little bit "Purple Haze" -- somehow evoking early Van Halen as well as more atmospheric modern artists such as Radiohead. The band is mercifully devoid of pulsating rhythms and backup dancers. And although Jaguares has occasionally veered into more conceptual realms -- 1998's Baja el Azul de Tu Misteriowas an ambitiously instrumented, mystically flavored double album that featured a full-fledged string section -- the emphasis is currently on more organic production rather than studio tricks. Cuando la Sangre Galopa finds the band stripped to a trio composed of Hernandez on vocals, Cesar "Vampiro" Lopez on guitar and bass, and Andre on drums, with occasional guests adding percussive elements to soulful songs like "Como Tú" and "La Vida No Es Igual (Life Is Not the Same)."