This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Mexican rock phenomenon first known as Caifanes, and now known as Jaguares, and the band will celebrate great moments in its history in a 37 city tour this summer. In some cities, they are re-uniting with original keyboardist Diego Herrera.
Formed in 1985 by songwriter Saúl Herández, Caifanes quickly made the jump from playing clandestine underground rock clubs to the big stages of Mexico, U.S. and Latin America. "I remember I was with Diego in a VW Bug going down Avenida Reforma and suddenly the radio announced ‘this is a song by Caifanes, Mátenme porque me Muero'," said Hernández. "It was an early lesson about not depending so much on the industry since we didn't have a label at the time."
The band's first album sold nearly 80,000 copies in 1987, without a radio hit or a big marketing campaign. These 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 Saul's lyrics.
"When we started playing we weren't looking for acceptance, we just wanted to be heard," said Hernández. "The power was in playing, that in itself was like a political act. I am not a politician 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, however, you can."
"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. "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 that hasn't changed."
The journey that began with songs like "Viento," "Mátenme Porque Me Muero", "Perdi mi Ojo de Venado" symbolizes the most important period in Mexican rock history, one that saw the emergence of a new generation of artists with defiant songs that created an identity apart from U.S. and European rock. Saul's lyrics and music are the thread that has kept the continuity of the band's voyage. Their songs created a new narrative of indigenous Mexican mysticism and spoke to Mexican youth who were searching for a distinct identity. As a songwriter, Hernández speaks across the generations with poetic songs that 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."
A legal dispute caused Hernández to reform under a new name, Jaguares, which focused the group further on their celebration of ancient Aztec and Mayan religious symbolism. The band was set up as a "workshop" with core Members Saul and Alfonso collaborating with different musicians.
"It's always been a group effort," said André. "Saúl will write lyrics and sometimes a riff spontaneously comes out and we expaund on that, and we have a song."
"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. " The current Jaguares line-up includes bassist Marco Renteria, percussionist Leonardo Muñoz, and guitarist César "Vampiro" López.
Twenty years have passed since Caifanes began playing in Mexico City streets, helping bring worldwide attention to Mexican rock and rock en Español in general. This summer's tour in many ways will be a big party, a raucous tribute to a thunderous, guitar-driven band. But Jaguares is also a band with a strong commitment to sending a message, and a lyrical way of telling it . With each album, Hernández puts political commentary and social consciousness at the forefront of the band's musical vision.
"You always have to be confrontational and countercultural," he insists. "Otherwise 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."
"We're involved with Amnesty International," says Hernández. "We feel people, like us need a way to focus their energy and frustration in order to accomplish change. We have a connection with the people that bring Amnesty to life, the people behind ‘Make Some Noise', for instance. It amazes us that half way around the globe, somewhere in Dublin, there are people more concerned about the women of Juarez than in our own government just down the street.
"I am often questioned about my ‘insistence' on the issue of Ciudad Juarez and my reply sadly still has to be the same... I continue to mention it, because nothing has changed. Our government continues to ignore the issues both in Ciudad Juarez and in other cities. Over 400 hundred dead women in Ciudad Juarez alone, and each and every one of them, deserve not to be forgotten. They deserve justice, as do their families.
"We concentrate more on telling people important things," said Hernández. "We might be famous but fame is very ephemeral. We're more about nurturing a collective consciousness."
The tradition of the jaguar lives on in Jaguares. The band has found poetry in darkness, strength in musical mystery, and in Mexican tradition. Jaguares are Mexican alt-rock's most durable gods, a band who plays with the same passion and devotion for 120,000 fans in the Zócalo of Mexico City, a small club in Paris, a cultural event in Oaxaca or the Universal Amphitheater. As they've shown time and time again, Jaguares can sell out venues without a new single on the radio or a new record on the shelves.
Jaguares look back proudly over twenty 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 urgent. Let's start from zero and see what we have inside."
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.