The crowd at the Valley’s Choice Awards on Dec. 15 shouted, “Otra! Otra! Otra!” as the curtains began to close following La Mafia’s brief performance at La Villa Real Special Events Center.
The Houston-based band obliged and started their encore. Teenagers to 60-somethings pulled out lighters, swayed side-to-side and sang along as front man Oscar De la Rosa belted out the classic, “Me Estoy Enamorando.”
The five members of La Mafia were equally as passionate as they performed the three-song set, which included the 1994 chart topper “Vida,” and current single,”Tienes Razon.”
La Mafia took a step back two years ago to pursue individual projects, but the hiatus didn’t last. The fans wouldn’t let them stay away.
“It’s constant,” De la Rosa said. “You go to eat at a restaurant, you go to a club. ‘So when are you going to get back together?’ It feels good that the people haven’t forgotten about us.”
La Mafia recently released its 35th album, Para El Pueblo, the band’s first original recording in almost three years and the first album under their own label, Urbana Records.
The album is a return to what made La Mafia famous in the 1980s, a winning formula that showcases De la Rosa’s voice on soulful ballads and spirited cumbias. A skillful production team, led by Armando Lichtenberger Jr., the group’s accordionist/keyboardist, once again achieves La Mafia’s classic and progressive sound.
La Mafia strayed from its blueprint in its last few albums.
“We fight it,” Lichtenberger said. “Artists go through this all the time. We think, ‘That was our hit, that was the type of music we did, but now we want to do something new,’ but we’ve already accepted that some of the La Mafia style is set in stone. That’s us, and no one else sounds like us. And we’re proud of that.”
Along with De la Rosa and Lichtenberger, guitarist Tim Ruiz, bass player Rudy Martinez, drummer Joe Gonzales and keyboardist David de la Garza make up La Mafia. Founding member Leonard Gonzales left the group in 1999.
With the new album and a full concert schedule, La Mafia is officially back.
The group is preparing to mark an important milestone in 2005 — 25 years in the music business.
In that time, La Mafia has recorded more than 400 songs, earned six No. 1 albums and singles on Billboard and won two Grammys. The group won over millions of fans with unforgettable songs like, “Un Millón de Rosas,” “Estás Tocando Fuego,” “Tu, Tu y Solo Tu,” and “Ahora y Siempre.”
But charts or album sales can’t measure La Mafia’s most significant contribution.
The group dared to take its music across the border into Mexico during a time when Mexican-American artists were not accepted. That move ultimately opened doors for other artists.
That history is La Mafia’s toughest opponent.
“Three decades,” Lichtenberger said. “We have our own history to compete with. We know where we’ve been and we know where we can go.”
La Mafia’s story begins in the early 1980s in Houston when Lichtenberger, De la Rosa and Leonard Gonzales started gigging as group.
With their 1980s rock ’n’ roll attire, long hair and busy light show, La Mafia wasn’t accepted by the traditional tejano right.
“Nobody wanted La Mafia,” Lichtenberger said. “We were turned down so many times.”
De la Rosa and Lichtenberger credit tejano legend Little Joe and others like Ramon Ayala and Cornelio Reyna for lending them a hand.
“I’m a true believer in giving credit to those that help you,” De la Rosa said. “Little Joe took us on tour to West Texas with him. We were ready to give the people something new and Little Joe supported us.”
Little Joe said he was happy to help La Mafia the same way artists like Isidro Lopez and Tony De la Rosa helped him when he was starting out in the 1960s.
“I saw a new, up-and-coming group with a lot of talent,” Little Joe said. “Everyone can use a little help, but it was their willingness to work hard that took them to the top. I was just one of the steps on their ladder.”
La Mafia continued the tradition, helping Selena and Los Palominos, among others, along the way.
Lichtenberger said he was grateful when Selena herself thanked La Mafia for its support on national television before her untimely death in 1995. But in accounts since then, there is little or no mention of La Mafia.
“Selena and La Mafia were great, great friends, the best of friends,” De la Rosa said. “I am here to set the record straight. We did help Selena get her career started. Her father doesn’t want to accept it or be honest with the fans. … But the people that have seen La Mafia for all these years know that we were the ones that helped Selena get started.
“There were rough times when she was coming up but we believed in her. We knew she was going to do it. It was just a matter of time.”
La Mafia spent last week touring in Mexico, which was virtually impossible when the band started out.
Lichtenberger recalled La Mafia’s first venture south of the border in 1989.
“We played at Terrazas Corona in Matamoros, which is virtually a parking lot,” he said.
“We’ve played a lot of parking lots!” De la Rosa chimed in, laughing.
Crossing the border was a calculated decision.
“I remember a conversation we had in our office,” Lichtenberger said. “We said, ‘The border is right there, why don’t artists go across and play over there? We should try that.’ ”
The decision to start in Matamoros, where prejudice against Mexican-Americans is not as strong as it is in other parts of Mexico, was a stroke of genius.
From Matamoros, La Mafia eased its way into the República. Before too long, the group was accepted all over Mexico.
Lichtenberger admitted that going into Mexico was no easy task because of the language and cultural barriers.
“We were up front,” he said. “We never pretended to know Spanish perfectly. During interviews, we acknowledged that there are many Mexican-Americans that won’t even admit that they have Mexican blood. But we made it clear that we are proud of our Mexican ancestors and they appreciated our sincerity.”
Lichtenberger said he has a poster from that first concert in Matamoros at his Houston office.
“It’s a pride and joy for us,” he said.
Mexico was only the beginning of La Mafia’s international successes. The band branched out further, performing in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Argentina and more.
With all those accomplishments under their belts, some wonder why La Mafia is coming back for more.
“I feel hungry again,” De la Rosa said. “I really want to do this. You have to feel what you’re doing, if not, it doesn’t make sense.”
During the break from La Mafia, De la Rosa discovered a new talent.
“I’ve been painting,” he said. “I’ve gotten into art. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. My two sons do art and they are actually better at it than I am.”
De la Rosa also took some much needed time for himself in the last few years.
“I go out dancing, go to the clubs,” he said. “I do all the things that I didn’t get to do in my younger days. We were always touring 11 months out of the year. I never really had a life, and now I have a life away from my music.”
Lichtenberger put down his accordion for a while and got Urbana Records up and running.
The time away breathed new life into La Mafia, and it shows in their energetic performances of late.
“It feels like the first times when we were on stage,” De la Rosa said. “We get on stage and we’re excited to be up there, to see the people have a good time.
“Once in a while, you gotta chill, and we did. But we’re ready to get back to work, doing what we love the most — and that’s performing and playing music.”
December 24, 2004
Monitor Staff Writer
|PARA EL PUEBLO