The LeAnn Rimes of mariachi music

Talented and determined, Nydia Rojas is forging a pop career while remaining true to her roots

One of the first bands to make the transition from the sticks to the big city--Cuarteto Coculense--had come to Mexico City in 1905 to play for dictator Porfiro Diaz's birthday celebration. Then came the revolution, and Diaz was deposed; the group, by now called Mariachi Coculense, was getting gigs in Guadalajara as well as Mexico City, where the group relocated in 1920.

In 1925, Mariachi Coculense nabbed an opening act at the famed Tenampa Bar on Garibaldi Square, which was already the center of the then-coalescing mariachi universe. The band was the first mariachi to perform in legitimate theater, the first to play on a sound film, and the first to record "electronically." At the cutting edge, Mariachi Coculense established the template for all of the bands that would follow it.

Although enormously popular, it was hard for a mariachi band to exist, even in Mexico City, where all the greatest groups had official patrons. Mariachi Tapatio--led by Jose Marmolejo, nephew of Cirilio Marmolejo, who led Mariachi Coculense--was backed by the wealthy owner of a bus line. Mariachi Vargas--perhaps the greatest and certainly the most "pop" of the grupos--had a regular, salaried gig with the Mexico City Police Department.

In 1933, after visiting the Chicago World's Fair as a member of Mariachi Coculense, Jose Marmolejo formed Mariachi Tapatio, which pioneered the kind of cross-media synergy taught nowadays in marketing classes, as the band appeared in movies, on the radio, on records, and live. It further refined the popular mariachi sound, cementing the trumpet--which gradually replaced the cornet (and other, more tenuous instruments like flute or clarinet)--as the carrier of a tune's melody line. The trumpet would continue virtually unchallenged in this role until the '60s, when modern composers started to use French horns and re-introduce the flute.

Dominant throughout the '30s, Mariachi Tapatio was gradually overtaken by Mariachi Vargas. More rhythmically complex, Mariachi Vargas produced music that boasted more variety. Leader Silvestre Vargas had a keen ear for what the people wanted to hear, and his continual--but subtle--updating of his band's style secured its domination during World War II. Mariachi Tapatio settled down into a role as Mexico's musical ambassadors, anchored by a series of residencies at restaurants as well as movies where the band appeared but did not play the soundtrack. Jose died in 1958, and other members took over as leader. Before the group disbanded a decade later, it was often joined by a young singer named Vicente Fernandez.

Mariachi Vargas marked the beginning of modern, sophisticated mariachi. The music of Cuarteto Coculense--dating back to 1908--was so badly recorded that it's hard to imagine what it really sounded like. But on songs like "Las Abajanas" and "El Tecolote," the music is rough--close to its aboriginal roots--and more rhythmic, with melody carried by flute and violin. Mariachi Coculense keeps that rhythmic foundation--still lacking the dominant voice of the cornet or trumpet--and harkens back to its folkloric roots with the inclusion of hoots and calls (gritos) from participating musicians. The group's occasional "raking," or strumming in a circular pattern, of the guitarron (bass guitar variant) part--which produces not a linear bass line but a drone sound--provides a distinct link with the earlier music of the Cuarteto.

With Mariachi Tapatio, brass appears, as does real precision in arrangements and complexity. There are fewer gritos or whistles (silbidos) from the musicians, and it is easy to imagine this as "city music." This sharpened edge reaches its apex with Mariachi Vargas, which features multi-part harmonies and other modern touches like muted horns. The group is slicker and starts to get into clever tricks like the train motif that runs through "El Tren." It was Mariachi Vargas that accompanied Linda Ronstadt on her cross-cultural triumph, the Canciones de Mi Padre ranchera tour of 1988 and '89.

That was the music that Nydia Rojas grew up listening to. Although born in Los Angeles, her mother took her to Guadalajara when she was a year old, and she first heard mariachi music when she was two. "We didn't listen to much music," she recalls of their simple existence there. "There was really no stereo, and little TV."

While in Guadalajara, she first saw Nosotros los Pabres, one of the Mexican-made charro movies that paralleled the rise of the western in Hollywood in the '30s and '40s. (The charro, or horseman, is a heroic figure very much like our cowboy, and the highly decorated suit that is so often seen in restaurants--el traje de charro--is his ceremonial uniform.)

After Nydia returned to L.A. and quickly learned English, she was in the greatest danger of losing touch with her roots. "I wanted to fit in," she remembers. "You know, be one of the group, so I just kind of forgot about my Mexican roots and culture. I was listening to R&B and hip-hop. Everything was in English, and I even forgot Spanish, which was very embarrassing later on."

Dance had taken the place of mariachi in her life, but when she returned to Guadalajara at age 10 for her first communion, she began to reimmerse herself in the culture she had left behind.

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