The cat's meow

Jaguares hiss about human rights

There are two big reasons Jaguares are the top rock band from Mexico.

First, they won't sell out. One of the originators of the rock en Español (rock in Spanish) genre, the band will not sing in English, as the Sony Corp. would dearly love. And Jaguares won't compromise their attitude, lyrics or political stance for radio airplay.

Which leads to the next reason: namely, that Jaguares represent the dark, romantic soul of Mexico. It's what philosopher and sociologist José Vasconcelos termed "la raza cósmica" or "the cosmic race"; and what Mexican poet Octavio Paz described as "el laberinto de la soledad" or "the labyrinth of solitude."

Jaguares' words and music aim for the dark night of the Mexican soul, fueled by Aztec mythology and an indigenous culture molded by violent Spanish colonial conquest. Though frontman Saúl Hernández's lyrics are in Spanish, anyone can grasp the glowering, hallucinatory messages. Jaguares could, like other Spanish-language pop stars, sing in English, but Hernández says that by writing and singing exclusively in Spanish, he better honors the band's culture and protects its language. By expressing themselves in their native language, Jaguares emit primal feelings and nonverbal emotions. And that's what rock 'n' roll is all about.

It's also about speaking to real people, which is why Hernández finds that playing small clubs in cities like Charlotte — with growing Latin American populations — is such a treat.

"We want to appear in Charlotte and be close to the people," Hernández says from his home in Mexico City, where Jaguares normally play to between 10,000 and 100,000. In Atlanta, they play EarthLink Live, a venue with a capacity of 1,100.

"This tour, we want to be in smaller cities like Kansas City and Memphis and Charlotte," he says, "to be closer to the people."

Hernández formed Los Caifanes in the mid-1980s, but the influential band called it quits after suffering legal and personnel problems. With prodding from current guitarist Cesar "Vampiro" Lopez (who had played with Mexican pop-rock superstars Maná), Hernández reformed Caifanes in the early '90s, changing the name to Jaguares.

In the beginning, Caifanes were almost Cure-like, with a dark demeanor, somber lyrics and lots of teased hair. The band mixed chiming, U2-style guitars with bombastic blasts reminiscent of the Who. Jaguares have refined that sound into a mix that sometimes conjures Pink Floyd, sometimes Deep Purple, sometimes even the big guitar licks of a good pop-metal band such as Def Leppard. Mix that with elements of traditional Latin styles — a cumbia beat here, a salsa rhythm there — and you get the original musical hybrid that defines Jaguares in 2005.

It's the band's lyrics that cement its definition. Even if you don't read the English translations in the booklet that comes with the latest album, Cronicas de un Laberinto ("Chronicles of the Labyrinth"), you feel the haunting quality in the music and in Hernández's vocal delivery. He sings of darkness, war and death, and his passionate cries for social justice ring true.

Hernández is pleased with the new album's quick success. "It's a gold record in Mexico — in just one week on the streets," he says.

One of the album's strongest tracks, "Madera" ("Wood"), is about the recent murders of 400 women in Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. "We started our tour June 11 in Ciudad Juárez because a lot of women are being killed there. It's been 11 years of killing," Hernández says. "We talk about other places, too, where people were shot and killed by government people." (For more information on the murders, see www.jaguaresmx.com for related links, in both English and Spanish.)

Jaguares are working with Amnesty International on a campaign called Justice for the Women of Juárez and Chihuahua. The group hopes to pressure the Mexican government into stopping the killings and solving the murders. In an earlier interview, Hernández explained, "We want to keep applying pressure and get some justice. It has become a catastrophe, almost a genocide."

The other songs on the new CD are equally solid. Unlike the band's previous album, an all-acoustic collection of Jaguares and Caifanes songs called El Primer Instinto, the new album returns to the band's electric sound, though Hernández says the band made some production changes. For one thing, the band and its longtime producer, Adrian Belew (guitarist for King Crimson, David Bowie and others), recorded in Nashville.

"Everything was different this time," he says. "The exposure of the songs, the way the songs are built, the way we worked the guitars — all different. The rhythm section is worked entirely differently. It sounds very fresh. To me, it sounds like a band recording their first album."

On the first cut, "Bruja Canibal" ("Cannibal Witch"), Hernández sings in Spanish, "Show me where the world breathes from/I need its air to kiss you." Ever the romantic, he writes of love as though it could cure the world's ills. He also writes with a poison pen. In the final track, "Está Muy Claro" ("It's All So Clear"), he writes of his disillusionment with the Mexican political system in much the way Steve Earle writes of his anger toward the Bush administration. "In my country, the system has lost itself," sings Hernández. "Lost its belief, its autonomy; lost its peace/lost its history, its present; lost you."

As the leading exponent of rock en Español, Hernández has plenty to say of the music's future. "It's a huge movement in Mexico. Right now, the surf sound is huge. There are all kinds of these underground movements. There was 100,000 people at one show on the Zocalo [Mexico City's main square]." But like U.S. cities ruled by corporate radio, there are few outlets in Mexico where people can hear good, important music. In an earlier interview, Hernández complained, "Mexico City has 23 million people but no places to make concerts, no place to play."

His anger over the dearth of good music venues fuels his anger over Mexico's more important political issues. Discussing the city of Chiapas and the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, he patiently explains, "The most important thing is to recover human rights ... to assist people fighting for their rights, such as their right to vote."

And so defines Jaguares: politics, music and magic, direct from the Mexican underground, with little help from mainstream radio.