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 Misterio was 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)."
"We wanted to go back to the roots of the music that we listened to when we were kids," says Andre. "In a lot of music now, there's a lack of that emotional feeling. Everything's so programmed, from the use and abuse of Pro-Tools to the loops and the sampling. Those are things that we used, but we also wanted to do an album where you had the sense of a human being speaking through the instruments so that the feeling comes across no matter what the language. Plus, we've always wanted to move away from what we just did, to keep it interesting and go in a new direction. We don't want to just do something again because it worked the first time."
While Andre describes the band's songwriting process as "very democratic," much of its popularity focuses on Hernandez. Tall and lean, with long curly hair and a penchant for leather pants, he is regarded in Mexico both as a bona fide heartthrob and as a poet. Hernandez, who likes to say that he formed Jaguares after dreaming of performing inside a jaguar's mouth, may be familiar to American audiences from tours with his former group, Caifanes, which played North America as part of Peter Gabriel's 1995 WOMAD tour. Hernandez's lyrics touch on everything from personal meditations on love and relationships to social issues, including government corruption and poverty.
"Saul uses a really non-direct form and uses a lot of metaphors, so people get the song and they accommodate it to their own experience and make it their own," says Andre. "So the song takes on a life of its own, and it changes each person who listens. But we do have some social comments and some things that are wrong in our society, and we try to talk about that in our songs. We talk about a lot of issues we think need people's attention. We are not politicians. It's just part of who we are."
The members of Jaguares are also committed -- some might say stubbornly -- to performing in Spanish. They have never recorded an English-language song or album and have no intention of ever doing so. At a time when Latin-flavored bands are increasingly viewed by the music industry as one of the few sure things during a period of tepid record sales, Andre says his band is not overly concerned with breaking into the monolingual American market.
"We are really proud of our identity; we think that we should defend that," he says. "We are open to whoever wants to hear our music, but we don't have to always come to them, you know? We grew up listening to English-language music, and we didn't understand a word of it, but the feeling came across. I think that happens to us with people who listen to us and don't speak the language. If they really get curious about the lyrics, they can look them up with a dictionary. We would never have learned to speak English if it weren't for rock and roll. Most of what I know is not from school; it's from listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So maybe we can inspire some of the Americans to learn something of our language."
Andre is wary of the risks involved in attempting an English-language recording -- like unwittingly blundering through a poor translation.
"Most of the people who made it in the U.S., they do it singing in English," he says. "But we've seen the same thing the other way around: American people recording in Spanish. A lot of the time, it's horrible, really embarrassing. Just really, really bad. We don't want to do that -- to be a joke."
So far, the band's Miami-based record label, BMG, hasn't pressured Jaguares to alter its presentation for American vocabularies. And judging by the numbers on the band's current tour, its decision to stick with Spanish north of the border hasn't done any damage. Although Jaguares is playing in venues much smaller than those it headlines at home, with capacities of 2,000 rather than 10,000, the group is nonetheless finding its niche within the ever-widening Latino pockets that stretch across the United States. So far, shows have sold out in every city. And Andre says the live experience is all it will take for Jaguares's popularity to spread here.
"We think of them as being almost like tribal," he says of their shows. "The concerts are about the relationship of energy between the stage and the people. Some people think a concert is a band on a stage and a bunch of people watching, like, 'Oh, there they are.' But our fans really participate in the whole experience. That's what makes it magic."
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