In ancient Mayan cosmology, the jaguar is the lord of the underworld, the powerful god whose spotted robe is the cloak that darkness wears. While the eagle finds truth in the light of the sun, the jaguar lives by the mysteries of what cannot easily be seen. Now, centuries after the conquest of Mexico, the jaguar lives on as a symbol of strength, a warrior of spirit.
The tradition of the jaguar lives on in Jaguares, the band cofounded by singer-songwriter-guitarist Saúl Hernández and drummer Alfonso André, that since the 1996 release of El Equilibrio De Los Jaguares —an album produced by Don Was that featured guest spots from Mark Isham, Billy Preston, and Flaco Jimenez—has found poetry in darkness, strength in musical mystery, and modern innovation in Mexican tradition. Comprised of Hernández, André, and guitarist César "Vampiro" López, Jaguares are Mexican alt-rock's most durable gods, a band who can play for 120,000 fans in the Zócalo of Mexico City one week, and then light up 31,000 more in the United States when they share a bill with Morrissey. As they've shown time and time again, Jaguares can sell out massive venues like El Palacio de Deportes in Mexico and the Universal Ampitheater in Los Angeles without a new single on the radio or a new record on the shelves.
As a songwriter, Hernández speaks across the generations with warmly poetic songs that, whether they become hits or not, still take hold as meaningful soundtracks to the lives of so many, in Mexico and all over the world. Though their music is firmly rooted in Mexico, Jaguares' music has resonated with audiences throughout the United States, Central America, and South America, and in 1997, Hernández even teamed up with legendary Algerian rai singer Cheb Khaled to record the bilingual Spanish-Arabic duet "Ki Kounti."
From the brooding swirls of El Equilibrio to the stunning and star-studded acoustic career retrospective of El Primer Instinto , Jaguares make music born of the present but rooted in the spirits of the past, music that when performed live is far more than a concert—it's a communal ritual between thousands of singing strangers. The candles are lit, the priests take the stage, and in the space of a single evening, the concert becomes a holy rock-and-roll ceremony.
Jaguares were themselves born of Hernández's and André's previous life as Caifanes, the most important and commercially successful Mexican rock band of the late eighties. The two first played together in Las Insolitas Imagenes de Aurora, a short-lived project that formed when a struggling film student friend of André's needed a band to play at his party so he could charge admission. Hernández then went on to create Caifanes with other musicians, but fate did not keep them apart for long; Caifanes' third gig already included André on drums. Caifanes was one of the first bands out of the Mexico City rock underground to find a home on a major label. From 1988 to 1994, Caifanes released four classic albums crucial to the evolution of Mexican rock: 1988's Caifanes , 1990's El Diablito , 1992's El Silencio , and 1994's El Nervio del Volcan . The band’s first album sold nearly 80,000 copies, without a radio hit or a big marketing campaign. This accomplishment stunned Mexico’s music industry because it underscored a truth that thousands and thousands of kids already knew—rock music fans now had a voice through Caifanes’ music and lyrics.
After the first album, an EP was released with Caifanes' own version of a Cuban classic "La Negra Tomasa" (which eventually resurfaced as a bonus track on the re-issue of their first album). The EP—which sold nearly a million copies— is one of the earliest examples of Jaguares’ vision for Latin music’s rich heritage: that it transcends tradition and remains a vital and powerful influence.
"We started out before rock in Mexico was about big companies and making money," recalls André, whose drumming moves with ease between pounding force and subtle rhythmic play. "We had nothing. There was no equipment, no places to play, no attention from the media. You could never dream of making a living as a rock musician. So we did it only because we loved it. And though the industry has changed, the same is true for us now, we play because we love it."
Like so many Mexico City rock bands of the eighties, Caifanes emerged out of the ashes of the 1985 earthquake—a catastrophe which leveled the city to rubble and spawned a new generation of street cronistas, or chroniclers, armed with a new sense of creative and social urgency. "It didn't just shake up the earth," attests Hernández. "It shook us all up as people. It really changed our way of thinking. The earthquake moved everything. It was a reflection of the political and social situation of the day: OK, Mexico is moving, but we didn't know which road it was going to take. The land was telling us to wake up and asking us all to respond."
When it was time for their response, both Hernández and André dug back into their musical pasts. They both grew up as Beatles junkies, while André—who sometimes shares songwriting duties with Hernández—also took in some Zeppelin, some King Crimson, and some Juan Gabriel and Jose Jose from his parents' radio. But for Hernández , after the Beatles showed him the light as a musician, it was David Bowie's "Life on Mars" that showed him the way as a songwriter. "It was one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard," says Hernández. "It opened another door for me. The song was an invitation to discover myself."
When Hernández was growing up in the rough and tumble Mexico City barrio of Colonia Guerrero, his mother used to warn him about the kids who'd hang out on the street corner with their Vaseline-slicked Prince Valiant haircuts, high-waisted pants, and rebel attitude. They called themselves "caifanes" and Hernández never forgot how they made him feel. "They had a mysterious image about them," he remembers. "I had already thought about forming a band who like the caifanes, had the same idea about living- these same desires to confront society and this same fantasy, this same romance about life. How could we do this musically?"
Caifanes' outlaw stance as truth tellers of the Mexican underground may seem miles away from the ever-unfolding success story of Jaguares. But for Hernández , the spirit of those formative years of Mexico, when rock was actively marginalized by the government and the mass media, will never leave his music. "You always have to be confrontational and countercultural," he insists. "Otherwise you become a capitalist motherfucker and you lose all your integrity, which is the very reason why we are here. Keeping in touch with that original spirit is just natural for us."
With each Jaguares album, Hernández puts political commentary and social consciousness at the forefront of the band's musical vision, from vocal support of Mexico's indigenous communities to vocal condemnation of Mexican governmental corruption.
"I used to play music in the streets," says Hernández , who has penned songs like "Las Ratas Tienen Alas" and "La Vida No Es Igual." "We grew up in social circumstances that taught us inequality in Mexico is very serious. Mexico is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is also one of top countries in the world with a high concentration of the wealthy. There are two Mexican millionaires who have one third of the country's riches. And forty percent of the population is dying of hunger. I am not a politician and will never be one but I try to take advantage of the spaces I am given and speak with the people. You have to do something. If it's not in public, at least do it in your house, in your life. Change what you know isn't right, however you can."
Jaguares was born after a series of dramatic personnel changes, in-house squabbles, and record label battles led to the demise of Caifanes. It was time for Hernández to focus anew on his goals as an artist. He decided he wanted to create a group that instead of functioning like a traditional band the way Caifanes did, would function more like a workshop dedicated to the free pursuit of musical invention. "We wanted a band built on creative freedom, and without assigned roles that did not make music for contracts and money," says Hernández. " We discovered a new way to work, a new way to make music where there is total freedom. Now I'm so happy because we have really grown into the kind of band I always dreamed about having, a band that organizes itself. Not the company. Not the management. Just the musicians."
After experimenting with different personnel on Equilibrio ,Bajo El Azul de Tu Misterio , and Cuando La Sangre Galopa —including guitarist Jose Manuel Aguilera, bassist Federico Fong, and bassist Sabo Romo—the current Jaguares line-up now includes bassist Chucho Merchan, percussionist Leonardo Muñoz, and guitarist César "Vampiro" López who has been with the band since Bajo El Azul De Tu Misterio . López, an expert at teasing melodies on songs like "Viejo El Mundo" and "Hasta El Ultimo Planeta," joined up on an invitation from Hernández after the release of El Equilibrio and is a veteran of two prominent bands from his native Guadalajara: global pop-rock giants Maná and alt-rockers Azul Violeta. He met Hernández and André back when Azul Violeta used to open Caifanes' Guadalajara concerts and López was still just a fan.
"In that era of Mexican rock," recalls López, who grew up on a steady diet of boleros and traditional Mexican popular music before he got the rock bug, "Rock was very repressed. So bands like Caifanes who were able to break out of the underground and become massive—they were my heroes. They built the infrastructure that in those days didn't exist."
The Jaguares heard on 2002's warm and genre-spanning retrospective El Primer Instinto —a culmination of all the elements Hernández and André have been devoted to since their days with Caifanes—is a Jaguares that after years of searching for the right fit, has finally found it.
"It's a very nice time for us as a band,” says André. “We are really enjoying it. Saúl and I have been together for so many years that it's like a brotherhood. We've been through hate, love and everything in between. We learned to work together in a way that we don't get on each other’s nerves, most of the time. He likes what I do and I like what he does. The other people in the band right now, Chucho, Vampiro and Leo, they make it really easy to be in this band. They are great people to work with—really good musicians and excellent human beings. It helps the music."
Because Jaguares know that longevity is not a trait typically associated with Mexican rock, they look back proudly over fifteen years of struggling to make music their own way, according to their own spirit, according to their own mysteries. "I try to let things float and keep my mind open and fresh," says Hernández." I try not to see what is right in front of me—the band, the record, success, whatever. That is all past. Each record is a new band, a new record, new music. It's always as if it's the first record of our career—the necessity of doing something fresh, something new, something urgent. Let's start from zero and see what we have inside."