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New Kind of Mariachi? Si, Senorita

Pop music: 16-year-old Nydia Rojas, who appears Thursday in O.C., doesn't fit the stereotypes.

September 25, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Picture a mariachi: Is he mustachioed, maybe a little grizzled? Does he wear boots and embroidered pants? Is he a he?

How about sweet 16 and about to go shopping for dresses? You know, something to wear at the Kennedy Center in Washington?

When it comes to mariachis, any stereotypes are old sombrero.

"There have been a lot of changes," said Nydia Rojas, the teenage sensation appearing Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with Mexico's Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan--which, by contrast, is about 100 years old.

"Young people are starting to get into it," said Rojas, who lives in Hacienda Heights. "There's a lot of corruption on the streets, a lot of drugs and gangs. We need something to identify with, something to look forward to, something we can feel proud of. We turn to mariachi music. . . .

"I don't think there has to be any age for mariachi."

Has her own youth proved an obstacle in the tradition-steeped field?

"Not at all," she said. "On the contrary. On the contrary."

On Monday, Rojas sang the national anthem, performed and presented an award to Jimmy Smits of ABC's "NYPD Blue" at the Kennedy Center's Hispanic Heritage Awards. Over the weekend, she was featured on the international Spanish-language "Sabado Gigante" television variety show. The city of Los Angeles will proclaim Oct. 4 "Nydia Rojas Day."

Her love of mariachi music can be traced back to a film she saw as a 4-year-old: "Nosotros los Pobres," starring Pedro Infante.

Though born in California, she was living in Guadalajara at the time. She studied with Heriberto Molina, an original member of the second-generation Mariachi Vargas (led by Silvestre Vargas in the 1930s) who is featured in many of the group's movies and records; since 1937, Mariachi Vargas has made about 200 films and 50 recordings. From Molina, Rojas said, she learned "the feeling. The sentimiento. The emotions that you have to transmit to the audience."

She also worked with Jose Hernandez, director of Mariachi Sol de Mexico and founder of the Mariachi Heritage Society program at the Los Angeles Music and Art School. She idolizes Lola Beltran and has met with Amalia Mendoza, who sang a song for her at the dinner table once with such sentimiento that Rojas cried.

*

Rojas began her professional mariachi career at age 10, singing in restaurants in East Los Angeles. Two years ago, she recorded the Spanish theme song for "Don Juan DeMarco," a film that starred Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp. A former member of the all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, she made her solo debut in June at the Hollywood Bowl's Mariachi USA Festival.

Her self-titled album on the Austin, Texas-based Arista Latin label (she is the first female artist on its roster), came out in July, produced by Hernandez. It runs a gamut from mariachi standards--"No Me Amenaces" (Don't Threaten Me) by Jose Alfredo Jimenez--to original material--"Si Sabes Agradecer" (If You Know How to Appreciate)--to "La Numero Uno," a rendition of Blondie's "The Tide Is High" from 1980.

Of Blondie's hit, Rojas said, "the original sounds to me like mariachi. I thought, why don't we do it in Spanish? It's a way to interest young people and to show that you can do almost anything you want with mariachi. I kept a bass line, vihuela, trumpets. . . . People can't tell me later that it's not mariachi. I have proof."

The concert, being presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, also will feature Mariachi Tlaquepaque, roper Francisco Andrade and the Folklorico Mexicanisimo dancers. As young as Rojas is, the irony of playing mariachi music at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--or at the Hollywood Bowl, for that matter--isn't lost on her.

"Mariachi is becoming more of a concert-type music," she said. "There are all different kinds of styles; every group has its personal identity. The impression [I'm] trying to give is that it's not bar music, it's not cantina music. It's more for listening. It's beautiful music, versatile and complicated to play."

She maintains that the genre's new sophisticated edge won't mean a loss of spontaneity.

"Even on the concert stage, it's all improvisation. It's always changing. . . . That's how we bring people in."

* The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presents Nydia Rojas, Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Tlaquepaque, roper Francisco Andrade and the Folklorico Mexicanisimo dance troupe Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. $15-$55. (714) 740-4848.

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