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Voices of Change

The Galaxy, Aiming to Be Mariachi Central, This Week Embraces Nydia Rojas

September 06, 1997|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When maestro Jose L. Hernandez brought his acclaimed Mariachi Sol de Mexico to the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana earlier this year, he remarked that the new musicians hardly resemble the mariachis of 200 years ago.

Nydia Rojas--one of a handful of women who make mariachi music their own--perfectly illustrates that point. She is credited with breaking into the traditionally male-dominated realm about five years ago with Hernandez's Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the United States' first all-female mariachi ensemble.

The 17-year-old mariachi singing sensation's successful self-titled debut album (produced by Hernandez), making Rojas the generational bridge between older Mexican immigrants who grew up on the music and young Mexican-Americans seeking to tap into their musical heritage.

Her performance tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre also underscores the Santa Ana venue's quest to become Orange County's new home for mariachi music.

Mariachi's proven drawing power at such large festivals as Mariachi USA, which plays to huge crowds at the Hollywood Bowl, persuaded Galaxy club owner Gary Folgner to take a risk and make his venue a premier spot for mariachi music.

It's scarcely been a risk, though, said Mario Arias, the club manager responsible for bringing Latin acts to the Galaxy.

In May, the 500-seat dining and concert club was packed with fans who paid $25 a piece to hear Hernandez's Sol de Mexico. Last month, Tejano-music singer Carmen Jara repeated the feat while debuting her mariachi talents. Like Hernandez, she drew a mature audience, a stark contrast to the young crowd the venue usually attracts for its more common pop-and-rock fare.

"There really hasn't been any club to go see quality mariachi in Orange County," said Clara Leticia Esparza, a Santa Ana restaurateur who went with her husband to watch Jara. "In the 11 years that we've been here, this is our first local show."

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The Orange County mariachi scene is largely found at onetime outdoor park festivals or inside restaurants, but rarely in a club setting, said 16-year-old Sandy Garcia, a Santa Ana native and an up-and-coming musician who gave an impressive performance opening the show for Jara. Garcia will also open tonight for Rojas.

"We really don't have many places to perform except at private parties and fund-raisers," said Garcia, who has a demo CD produced in Tijuana with original material written mostly by her dad, Ciriaco Garcia.

"It's great that such a prestigious venue as this one will host mariachi concerts," Rojas said in a recent interview at the Galaxy. "It brings more recognition to mariachi. It's not just cantina music anymore."

Rojas, who was born in Whittier, knows the private party and Mexican restaurant circuit. "I take pride in that," she said, reflecting on when she began her mariachi singing career, about seven years ago in a Hawaiian Gardens restaurant.

But her interest in the centuries-old music form began years earlier while watching mariachi legend Pedro Infante perform in the film "Nosotros los Pobres" (We the Poor).

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants from Guadalajara--mariachi's birthplace--Rojas soon found herself moving slowly away from her Mexican heritage.

By the time she was 6, she had all but forgotten Spanish.

"I forgot about Mexico," she said. "I wasn't singing Pedro Infante songs anymore. . . . I just wanted to fit in."

But then her parents sent her to Guadalajara for her First Communion. It was a moving experience that rekindled something buried deep inside.

"It just brought back all kinds of memories," said Rojas, who immediately went about relearning her native language. "That changed my life."

She made her singing debut at a convalescent home in Mexico, and, when she returned to the United States, she begged her mother to enroll her in singing classes. Her mother also made her learn violin, guitar and vihuela--a lute-like instrument--hallmark instruments that make mariachi music distinctive.

She began her formal training with Heriberto Molina, a member of the 100-year-old Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. When she was 13 years old, she went to the Mariachi Heritage Society in South El Monte to hone her artistry and met Hernandez, the society founder.

Hernandez immediately heard the potential in Rojas' robust, sentimental voice.

He recruited her for his Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, but she left the at age 15 in pursuit of a solo career. A year later, she became the first female artist signed to the Arista Latin label, where her debut album earned critical acclaim and the attention of the White House. She performed at President Clinton's inauguration in January.

Now, she hopes her second recording effort makes as good a splash. She said "Florecer" (Blossoming), scheduled for release in October, describes her musical growth and passage into young adulthood. Musically, she continues to pop-ize mariachi in the same way her mentor, Hernandez, does with his work.

"As much as I listen to mariachi, I listen to rock," she said. "I'm not a conformist. I like to try new things and show that us mariachi [musicians] can do different things."

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Nydia Rojas performs with guest Sandy Garcia tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $23.50 (714) 957-0600.

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