The LeAnn Rimes of mariachi music

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

"I didn't even realize that I could sing," she says. "I was really more of a dancer, but there was this woman who was a vocal teacher, who taught mariachi and all these other kinds of music, and I went to her. She asked me to sing a song, so I sang the only song that I knew--"Amorcito," from Nosotros los Pabres. My mother said, 'Mariachi? Why do you want to sing that?' She thought of it as music for restaurants, but she was just uninformed; she didn't know how to listen to the music." Nydia first performed in public not long thereafter, at a benefit for a home for the elderly. "I've been doing mariachi ever since," she says.

Nydia's mom shouldn't feel too embarrassed about being--as her daughter puts it--"uninformed" about mariachi. Few people know much about the music, and what they do know is often wrong. The word "mariachi" itself, which has long been attributed to a derivation of the French word for marriage, actually pre-dates the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s. As is often the case with folkloric music, however, the exact genesis of the word is still unclear: Many point to the raised wooden platform--called a mariche--that musicians often utilized as a possible root for the word.

Regardless of the term's origin, Olivia Rojas' Waterloo at the taco stand was the turning point for her daughter and mariachi. "Eventually my mom understood," Nydia says. "Mariachi is diverse within itself. There are so many combinations of song, of rhythm, and of costume, that there's really no set standard." In the realm of mariachi, Rojas comes off as mature and assured, definitely the LeAnn Rimes of the genre, but she retains an innocence that Rimes has lost (or perhaps never wanted to present). When she talks about "educating" her mother, it's without arrogance or rebellion: It's more about fact, just as when she talks of returning to Southern California at age five. "I was in kindergarten, but I was so far ahead of those kids..." she trails off, aware of how the words must sound. Still, there's no other way to say it, and she continues: "In Mexico, I was in school since I was maybe one and a half."

Nydia is prematurely pragmatic, perhaps, but she also retains most of the attributes of teenage femininity. As she speaks about her music, she warms to her subject, talking with an adolescent girl's bubbly, rapid-fire patterns. However, when--moving even faster in her excitement--she utters the word "crap," she halts for a second before giggling nervously, and you can almost see her eyes darting back and forth, making sure Mom didn't hear.

After the taco stand incident and her mom's ultimate conversion to her cause, Nydia began studying under Heriberto Molina, who was a longtime member of Mariachi Vargas and a contemporary of the great, defining artists of mariachi: female stars like Lucha Villa and Lola Betran, the great songwriter Jose Alfredo Jiminez, Jorge Negrate, the trumpeter Miguel Martinez, and of course Infante.

Classic mariachi training involves learning a staggering number of standards (there is little written music) in every key, with every instrument in the ensemble. As Nydia underwent this rigorous schedule, the commitment of both daughter and mother grew.

Not long thereafter, Nydia was discovered by Jose Hernandez, a fifth-generation mariachero who leads the contemporary Mariachi Sol de Mexico and is the founder of the Mariachi Heritage Society. Hernandez eventually cast her as the lead singer with his Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, an all-female group, but she retained an identity apart from the group.

"I've always considered myself a soloist," she explains. "I like to stand out; I'm always telling jokes and stuff so that people would notice me first. I was a big ham."

When not with Mariachi Reyna, she appeared as a solo act. In 1993, she left Mariachi Reyna in favor of a full-time solo career, winning first place three times in a row on Spanish-language TV channel Univision's Sabado Gigante's talent search and becoming the first female artist signed to the newly formed Austin-based Arista/Latin label.

Hernandez produced her self-titled debut album Nydia, which was released in 1996. The album managed to deliver enough pop signifiers to guarantee commercial appeal while retaining roots sufficient to lend an authority--a sense of meaning something--that much Latin pop quite frankly lacks. The ranchera-flavored songs on Nydia like "Mexico y Su Musica" and "No Te Quiero Ver" are the best examples of this blend, but Nydia also scored commercially with its poppier confections, all of which placed well on the regional Mexican and Tejano charts: "Hay Unos Ojos," a duet with Ricardo Castillon; "Cuando Estoy Contigo," a laid-back cut that could almost pass for mid-'60s countrypolitan balladeering--muted horns and all; and "No Me Amenaces," which uses accordion and trumpet to good effect.

Her monster crossover, however, was "La Numero Uno," her version of Blondie's "The Tide is High." Putting a tropical lilt behind the mariachi trumpets that supported her lush Spanish vocals was an inspired stroke that made the cut sound more authentic than the somewhat wan reggae of the 1980 hit.

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