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Popular Tijuana Singer Lures Young Americans

Anyone who thinks the sleazy strip joints along Avenida Revolucion are still the hub of Tijuana night life hasn't been south of the border lately. In the last few years, nighttime entertainment in Tijuana has undergone a dramatic transformation, thanks mostly to the series of peso devaluations that began in the early 1980s. All of a sudden, club owners found they could no longer depend on locals only for survival, so they began sprucing up their facilities to attract more Americans. And their success in doing so is reflected in the startling new face of Tijuana night life--which now rivals that of San Diego in terms of diversity, quality and excitement. In the second story in a series, Genny Silva, a 20-year veteran of Tijuana nightclubs, is profiled.

June 28, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

TIJUANA — The northern end of Avenida Revolucion is the setting for a rather strange Jekyll-and-Hyde confrontation between the old and the new faces of Tijuana night life.

On one side of Revolucion, a few yards south of 6th Street, is the notorious Bambi Club. There, the latest generation of sailors keeps alive the decades-old tradition of chugging $2 beers while watching topless women with grotesquely painted faces dance around on stage.

Directly across the street, younger Americans--many in their teens--do the dancing themselves at New Mike's Bar, a modern nightclub that's an audio-visual splash of live rock 'n' roll dance music and flashing strobe lights. Here, there's only a hint of sex: a poster of a bikini-clad Heather Thomas that hangs next to the door of the women's restroom.

In this battle between old and new, sleaze and high-tech, the latter is winning. Each night, the crowd at Mike's is three or four times as large as the crowd at the Bambi Club.

It has been that way ever since the arrival at Mike's three years ago of singer Genny Silva and her backup band, the Crash. They fill the dance floor each Thursday through Sunday with a nonstop hit parade that ranges from oldies like "Twist and Shout" and "Good Lovin' " to recent tunes like "The Greatest Love of All" and "Object of My Desire."

"The people we get are mostly Americans, and more of them are coming down to see me than ever before," Silva said. "So the songs I sing are the ones they like to hear."

Silva, whose vocal range stretches from the subtle sensuality of Dionne Warwick to the scorching glory of Aretha Franklin, began her singing career 20 years ago, when she was 17, at the Aloha Club, a few blocks down the street from Mike's.

Back then, she said, she sang mostly Mexican songs and a few American soul tunes like Warwick's "Walk on By" and Franklin's "Respect."

In 1971, Silva began a six-year road trip of Mexico in which she performed in major nightclubs in Mexico City, Cancun and Mazatlan.

In 1977, she said, she returned to Tijuana to be with her family--she now has five children, ranging in age from 6 months to 20 years--and she has been singing in clubs here ever since.

At first, her repertoire wasn't all that different from what she had been singing all her life; her predominantly Mexican audiences preferred a mix of native standards and American soul classics.

But with the series of peso devaluations that marked the late 1970s and early '80s, she said, Tijuana nightclubs found they could no longer exist with only a local clientele.

That led to the "Americanization" of Tijuana night life, leading growing numbers of young Americans across the border in search of nighttime entertainment and dancing.

Silva and her band were among the first Tijuana performers to adapt; today, their repertoire consists of nearly 100 American and British rock songs.

The American influence Silva has brought to Mike's now extends outside the club as well: For the last few months, the snack stand on the corner has been selling hot dogs and hamburgers instead of the usual tacos and burritos.

As long as the Americans keep coming, Silva said, she's quite content with the shift in her music.

"I've always liked American music, especially the soul ballads," she said. "And now I can sing more of it than I ever was able to before."

Despite the long hours--every Thursday through Sunday, Silva sings from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.--she said she would rather perform in Tijuana than anywhere else, including San Diego.

"What I like most is the security," Silva said. "Here, I have a steady job; I can stay as long as I want.

"In San Diego, on the other hand, they (club owners) give you a contract for maybe one or two months, and then you don't have a job anymore; you have to keep on moving."

Silva said that, aside from her choice of songs, she has been told that a main reason for her growing popularity with American audiences is the fact that each song she sings sounds exactly like the original record.

"But I don't really know if that's true," she said, blushing. "All I do is try to sing what I feel, and I do feel the songs I sing, especially the slower, romantic ones."

Two Friday-night regulars at Mike's, 18-year-old Michelle Durette and 19-year-old Linda Greek, agree with that assessment.

"We started coming down here a year ago because our friends told us it's fun and it's legal to drink if you're under 21," Durette said. "But the reason we keep coming back is because the music is so good."

"Genny's got a great voice," Greek added, "no matter if she's singing a fast song or a slow one. And I can honestly say she's a better singer than anyone I've seen up in San Diego."

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