The LeAnn Rimes of mariachi music

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

Olivia Rojas knew she was in trouble when she saw the look on her 10-year-old daughter's face that morning. In the annals of the age-old power play between parents and their children, her suggestion that Nydia get up and sing at a little taco stand not too far from their Los Angeles home would not go down as brilliant strategy. She had meant for her daughter to see that it wasn't easy--becoming a mariachi singer--and had hoped her plan would put an end to her daughter's dream.

Olivia had always known that her talented daughter would end up doing something big--the kid was just too smart. At age five, Nydia left Guadalajara with her mother and moved to Los Angeles, where it only took her three months to start reading, writing, and speaking English. When plans were being made for Nydia to return to Guadalajara for her all-important first communion celebration, Olivia discovered that her daughter could no longer remember Spanish, and Nydia relearned it in a matter of weeks.

Olivia was proud of her daughter, but she just didn't understand her current infatuation with singing mariachi music. Her family had always known she was artistic, but thought of her as a dancer; she'd been taking dance lessons since she was a little girl and really seemed to throw herself into it.

And you expect a young girl to have dreams of being a glamorous pop star, like Selena. But mariachi? The theme music of Mexican restaurants across America? Yes, it was the folkloric heartbeat of Mexico, but it was the music of a different generation, one whose time had passed. Olivia never thought that the family's favorite movie--the old charro flick Nosotros los Pabres (We the Poor)--would lead to this. Nydia had always loved "Amorcito Corazon," the song in the scene where the little boy has been burned to death, and his mother is holding him, and she and the great Pedro Infante are singing with tears in their eyes. That was the only song she'd ever bothered to really learn. Now, however, this mariachi thing had become more than just a matter of a favorite song from a beloved movie. At some point, Olivia thought that the harsh reality of performing in front of folks--the condescending smiles, the conversations that continue even through your best work, the heckling--would show her daughter how hard the life of a singer would really be.

Clearly, Olivia had been dead wrong about the effect her strategy would have on her daughter. Instead of backing down from her mother's suggestion that she perform at the taco stand, the headstrong Nydia was already on her feet, a look of triumph in her eyes. It was obvious: This was the kind of opportunity she'd been waiting for.

"She was just playing around," Nydia, now 17, recalls with the laughter of a triumphant child. "But I was like, 'Don't dare me, Mom, you know I'll do it,'" and Olivia found herself in the unenviable parental position of trying to argue against accepting a scheme she herself had devised.

"No, no, no," Nydia remembers telling her mom. "You already said it." She pauses. "I was real stubborn back then," she admits, then pauses for a longer time before laughing again. "I still am."

At the restaurant, Nydia asked the band playing there if it was familiar with the only song she knew well enough to attempt in public. "I sang 'Amorcito Corazon,'" she recalls. "When the owner heard me, he hired me right there to sing a weekly gig on Sundays." Nydia sang during the restaurant's most laid-back and contemplative time, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. "I even got paid," she says with a pride familiar to most musicians.

In many ways her own journey--bouncing back and forth between her roots in Guadalajara and the great melting pot of Southern California--parallels the early development of the music she loves, albeit in reverse. While Nydia traveled from urban L.A. to the simpler environment of Guadalajara, mariachi began in the rural area centered around the southern part of the state of Jalisco at the end of the 19th century and benefited from the cultural changes wrought by the development of a unified Mexico.

Much of this change arose from the Mexican Revolution, a period of turmoil that began with a bloody revolt in 1911. Previously, mariachis had been groups of five to six musicians who provided the soundtrack to fiestas, barroom revelry, and general celebration; they usually consisted of violins, a harp, and a guitarra de golpe--a five-string variant of the guitar. They often added a flute, clarinet, saxophone, cornet, or trombone to carry the melody line, and their repertoire consisted of the sones (usually a lively vocal/instrumental tune that accompanies dancing), corridos (narrative ballads that usually have a factual or historical component), and canciones ranchera (Mexican country music) of the region.

Before the revolution, accomplished groups might go to the big city to play, but they always returned home. With the ascension of "revolutionary capitalists," however, rural Mexico became cool as the popular culture enjoyed a surge in cachet. The government was definitely a motivating force in making mariachi a national music.

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.

"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.

Nydia says that she regards what she does as something of a "game," but she stops herself, again dissatisfied with how the word sounds out loud. "Not a game," she says, "but a challenge, I guess--let's see if I can learn that instrument, sing this song."

Or move from one genre to another. Her latest release, Florecer ("to bloom") is a much more pointed bid for the kind of dance-pop-love-song dominance that Selena enjoyed. For every mariachi-punctuated number like "Te Equivocas" or "Quiero Estar Contigo," there's a corresponding pop number--the soft-jazz burble of "Di cmame Mas" or the anthemic ballad "Paso Las Noches." While her debut featured pictures of her in charro regalia, most of the photos on Florecer show her in street clothes--she only appears in el traje on the album's back cover. Still, perhaps to ease the shock of transition, the album's first single, "Que Te Vava Bien," is perhaps the most mariachi-sounding of the bunch.

Nydia's desire to widen her appeal wasn't the only motive behind Florecer's pop slant. As she grew hotter with each hit off of Nydia, she began to attract attention from established Latin artists like Ana and Juan Gabriel. In fact, Carlos C. Junior--Ana Gabriel's longtime collaborator--was even brought on board as Florecer's producer.

Ana herself contributed two songs, the disc-starting "Llevame Contigo" and "Amor con Desamor." "When I heard that Ana Gabriel wanted to work with me, I was like, 'cool, all right!'" Nydia recalls. "She has a lot of songs, and she went through her files looking for the ideal song for me. She found two.

"I listened to them, and I thought they were great, but I had to go back to Carlos and say that the only problem was that there was no way to do the songs within the confines of mariachi. He said, 'I know. Are you willing to take that risk?' I said that they were Ana Gabriel songs, and I had to record them."

The gamble appears likely to pay off. The pop craft behind songs like Juan Gabriel's "Di Amame Mas" is impeccable, and Nydia's hybrid sound adapts itself to Tejano tastes as well, which is something of a happy accident: Even though Texas is her second-biggest market--behind Southern California--she knew nothing of Tejano culture before a recent visit to Texas.

"Before I came to Texas, I'd never heard Tejano music in my life," she exclaims. "I didn't know Jay Perez, or Emilio [Navaira], Shelley Lares, or La Tropa F. I don't think most people in California--L.A. especially--do; all that stuff is called norteno."

Naturally (although somewhat surprisingly to those of us here in the thick of the culture), Tejano--primarily a regional definition--doesn't mean a whole lot in California. "In Texas," Nydia says, "it seems that Mexicans want to be called Tejano and nothing else. In California, we don't consider ourselves "Californians"--we're Mexican-Americans.

"I consider myself fairly open-minded," Nydia adds. "I like to look at other cultures, and my own. I think that every culture has it flaws, just like every culture has its good things."

If, at times like this, Nydia comes off as a bit scripted or studied, consider that study has always been something she's been good at. Right now she's apologizing for being tired and a bit worn out after studying all night for the classes in philosophy and Mexican-American history that she takes at Mount San Antonio Junior College in L.A. "I think I may be the only 17-year-old there," she says with a giggle.

Although remarkably self-possessed and determined, she seems in no hurry to become an adult. "This is my childhood," she says. "I'm still living my childhood. I take everything seriously, but only up to a point. As far as I'm concerned, this is my hobby, what I love doing. That's anyone's dream, isn't it? To work at what you love doing."

She's aware of the power that a pop figure--never mind a star--can wield, but rejects the idea of being an out-and-out role model. "Eventually I want to have a role like that, but right now, what I'm learning, I'm learning for me. For Latinos--especially Mexican-Americans--there's been a lot of hardship and oppression, and we tend to limit ourselves. We've been brought up to believe that we can only rise to a certain level and never go beyond that. What I want to demonstrate is how that's not the case, how you don't have to be afraid to go for it. It's different for us, because we live our lives in two different worlds--our Mexican roots and our lives here in the U.S."

As during the Mexican Revolution, mariachi lives and grows at the edge of two overlapping cultures. Then, it was the fusion of rural Mexico and cosmopolitan Mexico City. Now, those two cultures are that of native Mexico and a new life in a land where foreign concepts like dance-pop and Tejano can capture both the imagination and the industries that feed off of it. Mariachi exists not only in its quasi-Disney restaurant identity, but in the cross-pollinated realms of regional Mexican music, Tejano, and international pop, based perhaps upon an essential identity that can survive any mixing.

"The whole point behind what I do," Nydia says, "is to remind people that not only mariachi, but also the charro, are things to be proud of."

Nydia Rojas will perform at the Austin Rodeo with La Tropa F at the Travis County Expo Center on March 22.

If you're interested in the archival recordings of Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Coculense, or Mariachi Tapatio, check out Arhoolie Records' excellent three-volume series Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis. For more information call Arhoolie at (510) 525-7471.

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