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If it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum, the leader of Mexico City’s cult supergroup Jaguares (formerly Caifanes) provides spiritual substance to a young Mexican audience deprived of it—they don’t find much meaning in historically rotten governments, out-of-touch Catholic-laced mores, and the shadows of pop culture coming from el norte.
Saul Hernandez didn’t set out to become a rock idol when he first started his group nearly 13 years ago, but the 36-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist now sits at peace with his creation. Hernandez & Co. command a fan base that has bought about 5 million copies worldwide of the group’s albums combined, with but a fraction of the mainstream attention that their contemporary Mana has drawn.
Intellectuals recognize Hernandez as the poet laureate of Mexican rock. He comes from a country where mysticism hangs in the air like smog. Magic, it seems, lives everywhere. Open-air markets sell Santeria trinkets, powders, and talismans side by side with Catholic iconography. Death is a Pez candy swallowed with irony. The folk music is as varied and colorful as a flower market in spring. The reality of indigenous culture is inescapable, down to the pyramids rising from central Mexico City.
From his native impressions, Hernandez pens rock anthem after rock anthem that adoring fans sing word for word at concerts. He writes a brooding, melodic prog-rock that flows somewhere between Yes and early U2, whose gift for between-the-lines lyrics he shares. A Jaguares concert is a religious ceremony with Hernandez as the high priest. His lucid poetry, up against his fragile, tattooed appearance, endows him with the prophetic status of Bob Marley and the sex appeal of a young Robert Plant.
“To say my lyrics are a prayer, maybe…” Hernandez said from his Mexico City home recently. “I would say it’s not a prayer but an invocation. It has more to do with what you believe in. You know, what you are thinking deep down inside, what you are feeling.”
Mexico’s collective experience, he added, weighs heavily with Western thought—rational and scientific. But “sometimes that’s not enough,” he said. “You have to go beyond what you can see. Sometimes there are unexplainable things. So I ask in my lyrics: Can you see the invisible?”
Seems a good question for rock fans in the U.S., where Jaguares’ 1996 album, El Equilibrio de los Jaguares, produced by Don Was, sold nearly 100,000 copies with almost no airplay. The Jags have repeated the feat with their 1999 double CD, Bajo el Azul de Tu Misterio (Under the Blue of Your Mystery), still with little help from radio.
The album, which has earned the Jags a Grammy Award nomination in the fledgling Latin Alternative category, delivers an explosive crash course in the band’s history. In 1987, Hernandez and his band members began working under the name Caifanes, a word derived from pachuco slang. (The bilingual phrase “Caes fine,” roughly means “You’re cool.”) They were Mexico’s answer to the Cure, and quickly became legendary for charting new waters in Mexi-rock history.
Following a legal dispute with band guitarist Alejandro Marcovich in 1992, Hernandez renamed the band Jaguares, after a powerful symbol in Aztec mythology. He says he drew the name from a dream in which he played a concert under a jaguar’s fangs. Jaguares employs three of the original Caifanes: Hernandez on guitar and vocals, Sabo Romo on bass, and Alfonso Andre on drums. The Jags recruited ex-Mana guitarist Vampiro (Cesar Lopez) and guitarist Jarris Margalli, who has played in some of Mexico’s most respected underground bands. This new trio of guitarists identifies the band with melodic, elegant, grungy waves of sound.
Still, Hernandez gets credit for all 21 songs on the “blue album.” He takes the color of the ocean and the sky as his theme, reflecting his penchant for pushing Earth-awareness; the subject turns up in many of his lyrics. His words are otherwise drenched with Mexican spirits, sex, and romantic love. The biggest hit off Equilibrio, “Detras de los Cerros” (“Behind the Hills”), celebrates Mexico’s indigenous heritage with layers of pre-Columbian imagery and allusions to the forces of nature. “Dime Jaguar” (“Tell Me Jaguar”), also from that album (rendered live on Bajo el Azul), is a kind of mortal plea: “Dime Jaguar como llegar hasta el final/Como mirar en la oscuridad?” (“Tell me, jaguar, how do I get to the end?/How do I see in the dark?”).
The new songs don’t deviate much from the old ones, either in lyrics or in sound. “Fin” plunges into Rumi-esque bittersweet poems of love with sweeping guitars. Splashy songs, like “Sangre” (“Blood”) as well as the momentum-building rock ballad “No Me Culpes” (“Don’t Blame Me”), with David Campbell’s string arrangements, could easily have come from the last album.
But it’s a philosophy, not a fashion, Hernandez is laying claim to. Bajo el Azul adds another chapter to his ongoing spiritual manifesto. Recently, he explained that he chose the title of this album after scuba diving: “When you’re 50 meters deep, you see how immense the ocean is,” he said. “It’s hard not to view it as an extension of what God is.” CP
Jaguares perform Feb. 10 at the Birchmere.