Wednesday afternoon's Q&A with Maná, moderated by Billboard's Leila Cobo, was clearly the centerpiece of the Billboard Latin Music Conference and the most crowded panel of the day -- and no wonder. As Cobo reminded the audience in her introductory remarks, the Mexican rock titans are the only rock en español group to score two albums in the top five of the Billboard 200, and the highest-grossing Latin touring act in the history of Boxscore. Add to that, it was the first time the band's members had ever appeared onstage together for a Q&A.
Video: Mana Q&A at the Billboard Latin Music Conference
Despite that legacy, the four bandmates were down to earth, and even shy, in the bilingual live interview. Bassist and founding member Juan Calleros had to be prompted to speak, but drummer Alex Gonzalez and singer Fher Olvera answered animatedly in both English and Spanish.
Though Olvera insisted that the group has never been political, per se, there were several issues about which the rockeros were clearly passionate. For Maná's upcoming tour, Cobo pointed out, ticket prices are virtually the same as they were five years ago.
"Our fans don't have to pay for the bad decisions made by the people who are supposed to take care of our money," Gonzalez explained to rousing applause.
¨Later, Olvera recounted the protest-song origins of "Latinoamérica," off the group's new album, "Drama y Luz."
"The song is asking for justice for those who are here who are undocumented. It's very sad what's happening in Arizona," he said. "Those are the hard workers who are putting bread on Americans' tables.
Things took a turn for the personal, though, when Cobo asked him about "Vuela Libre Paloma," another song from the disc dedicated to his late mother. His voice thickening, he recounted her intense, brief fight with cancer during the recording of the album.
"When she died, the band didn't know what was going to happen, because I was the most depressed I'd ever been in my life," he said.
But as weeks passed, he said, he turned back to his belief in the curative powers of music, and the song was born. Still, he has been unable to perform it live with the band. "We're now working on it to see if it's possible," he said.
More generally, the panel also touched on the band members' thoughts behind their long-lasting success. First of all, Gonzalez pointed out, he and Olvera have produced Maná's albums except their debut. Secondly, Olvera said, they always give themselves enough time to properly germinate the material -- hence the three-year gap between "Drama y Luz" and its 2008 predecessor, "Arde el Cielo." Most importantly, though, Gonzalez emphasized that they have worked hard since the beginning. "Guys need to understand that things aren't going to come for free," he said.
The session-ending Q&A with the audience brought some true aw-shucks moments. One woman said her son was an aspiring producer and songwriter, and asked the band how hard she should push him. "Your son is what he wants to be," said guitarist Sergio Vallín. "If you see your son is a musician, you have to support him and believe in him."
Later, a drummer in a local band, Odas, used his microphone time to ask if he could give Maná copies of his album. Though one of the group's handlers stepped in to intercept the stack, Gonzalez and Olvera insisted on leaving the podium to accept the discs themselves, to more thunderous applause.
In response to another audience question, Gonzalez even had a kind word for reggaeton. "It's what salsa was in the '70s. It's a representation of what's going on in the streets," he said. "Instead of criticizing it, people should be congratulating these people for making music. Music is universal!"