Maná's Fher Olvera Talks Latin Grammy Person of the Year Honor

ISSUE 23 2018 - PRESS PHOTO
Bernardo Flores
From left: Vallín, Calleros, Olvera and González in 2018.

When Fher Olvera, the lead singer for best-selling Mexican rock band Maná, wrote “Vivir Sin Aire” (Living Without Air) in 1992, his original goal was to pen a song about the environment.

“But my heart betrayed me, because I was in love with a woman,” recalls Olvera with a laugh. “It was an interesting hybrid, the lyrics: ‘I can’t live without air, without water and without you.’ And in the end, love, and everything that surrounds us, is part of a wide world. That song has been used for environmentally conscious ad campaigns, and also for ads about weddings.”

“Vivir Sin Aire,” now regarded as a Latin music standard, reflects the intimacy and universality of Maná’s music, a combination that has made it one of the most successful Latin bands of all time.

In recognition of the group’s impact and influence, The Latin Recording Academy will honor Maná as the 2018 Person of the Year on Nov. 14, the evening before the Latin Grammy Awards. It will be the first time in the 19-year history of the awards that a band has received the honor.

With its signature mix of calypso, reggae, pop and rock, anchored by Olvera’s trademark raspy vocals (his voice is often compared to Sting’s), Maná performs songs with lyrics about love as well as social and political issues. Comprising Olvera, drummer Alex González, guitarist Sergio Vallín and bassist Juan Calleros, Maná holds the record as the band with the most No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart -- 10 -- including the 2015 hit “Mi Verdad” (My Truth) with Shakira. The band also has placed two titles in the top five of the Billboard 200 (the most for a Latin group) and has scored eight No. 1s on the Top Latin Albums chart, including its latest, 2015’s Cama Incendiada (Burning Bed).

As a touring act, Maná has achieved similarly lofty success: The group has sold out the 20,000-capacity Staples Center in Los Angeles 13 times, the venue reports, a tally second only to Taylor Swift’s 16 sellouts.

Iñigo Zabala, president of the band’s longtime label, Warner Music Latin America, has described the group as an iconic act, “but they’re an icon that continues to produce hits.”

Beyond those hits, the choice of Maná as Person of the Year is an opportunity to honor a group of musicians who have “used the strength of music for the greater good,” says Latin Recording Academy president/CEO Gabriel Abaroa Jr.

In 1995, Maná founded the Selva Negra Foundation to focus on environmental and social justice efforts, including reforestation throughout Latin America, the protection of sea turtle habitats in Mexico, the construction of low-income housing, projects with native Indian communities and environmental education in Mexican schools.

The Latin Recording Academy says Maná will be recognized for “their extraordinary creative accomplishments and philanthropic contributions to the Latin community, as well as for their steadfast and dedicated support of environmental preservation and protection, as well as human rights.”

Billboard spoke with Olvera about the band’s upcoming honor, its environmentalism and the status of Latins in the Trump era.

 


 

It’s the first time this honor goes to a band, and to a rock act. What’s your reaction?
We’re really excited. This award speaks to the fact that the band has a track record of songs. The key with these awards is they honor creators: people who continue to give music to past and future generations. And this is something that has been in decline for one reason or another. The media has devoted a lot of time to promoting singing competitions, and they yield good singers, but not composers. Creativity needs to be fostered.

How do you view the trends in mainstream pop and in Latin hits?
We spoke recently about the fact that the top-selling artist in the world is Ed Sheeran. He’s a romantic singer-songwriter. [Romantic songwriting] isn’t going to disappear. It’s not that I have anything against hardcore reggaetón; it’s just that there needs to be more than one genre. In terms of lyrics, not everything is, “Mamita, open your legs.” That’s just too coarse for seduction. The sensuality is cool, but you can have a little bit more poetry in there. “Labios Compartidos” [Shared Lips], for example [one of Maná’s biggest hits], is a sexy song that says: “I’m trapped under the swaying of your hips.”

You teamed with Nicky Jam for a remake of your hit “De Pies a Cabeza” [From Head to Toe] in 2016. Why did you record with a reggaetón artist?
We like to experiment, and we made a deal: “We don’t want to go to your corner of the ring, nor you to ours.” We want to do something we all like. We do reggae and another type of calypso, not reggaetón. So we found a way to not use that tuc, ta-tuc hard beat, but more of a dancehall [beat], which is more the Maná style ... It’s one of those songs that makes you shake your booty but is cool.

Maná has a long list of hits. What are three that have particular significance for you?
A song that really delivers musically and lyrically, “En el Muelle de San Blás” [The San Blas Pier]. It’s a song I didn’t think would capture the audience, because it’s more poetic and metaphorical. [The song is loosely based on a local woman who waits for her long-lost lover on Mexico’s San Blas pier.] And I love that it had that communion with people. “Mariposa Traicionera” [Treacherous Butterfly] because it criss-crossed Latin American culture -- you can hear it performed by mariachi, by a trio, in a car, on a boat. It goes everywhere. And a more rock’n’roll representation of Maná is “Clavado en un Bar” [Stuck in a Bar]. These are songs I like to perform.

Your father died when you were very young, and your mother raised you and your three sisters on her own. What are your memories of growing up in a single-parent household?
The entire responsibility of having four children fell on her shoulders. I was 8, and my sisters were 9, 7 and 5. My mom had to do everything. I remember she’d sit down and work out her budget, and she would barely make it or not make it at all and would ask an uncle for a loan. It worried me so much to be so young and not be able to help out. We were all very, very thrifty. I had a scooter that I made out of roller-skate wheels because I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. And I was happy with it. I was once asked who my heroes were. The true heroes are single moms.

Feminism and the #MeToo movement are top of mind right now. How has your upbringing affected your perception of women?
Intellectually, women have the same potential as men, and then they have that extra [ability] that comes with intuition.

Your foundation, Selva Negra, is a pioneer in environmental philanthropy. Can you share an update on its activities?
We have beautiful reforestation projects underway. We’re starting to reforest parks inside Guadalajara [Mexico] together with schools. We think it’s important to educate. We also worked to integrate environmental education into the school curriculums: little things like how to save water, or recycle. Or how everybody should strive to have at least two trees.

How did you get started with environmental work?
I was having beers with my sisters on the beach, and we were watching the sunset. And suddenly, I start to see something spring up from underneath my feet. Baby turtles! We picked them up and pushed them toward the ocean and fought off the seagulls that were trying to eat them. I thought it was a miracle. And I decided we were going to try and save the turtles, although obviously we work with other species. But the most important work we do is inspire. That’s what can really move the needle. When we started, really no one was doing it. And at least people are now more conscious about what’s going on, and that fills us with pride.

Maná has been vocal in opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies, and you were the first Latin act to denounce his comments against Latins during his campaign. Are things better or worse now?
At a political level, much worse for Latinos. This whole issue of racism has been taken too far, and I’ve never seen it this bad. Our Latin community has been hugely undermined in the past three years, and everything we had gained over the past 70 years has fallen by the wayside. And it will be very difficult to get up again. But this is a democracy, and that’s the way it is. It’s like Mexico: People wanted a change. But we’ll continue to work from our little corner, to push the wheel and push for change. This won’t be forever, and there will be other elections.

Are performers obliged to speak out?
There’s nothing wrong with artists not speaking up; it’s their right to get involved or not. What all public music figures need to do is good music, good art. They need to place all the impulses into their hearts, their balls, their brains, into their art. Having said that, this country enjoys freedom of speech. And we’re also speaking about a humanitarian issue. It’s not fair for a group to come here, to help build a country and then be called trash. It’s a violation. And wherever there are violations, we should speak up. We speak with respect, but we can see what’s happening, and it goes beyond politics.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Billboard.