Mariachi, Female-Style

D. R. Ransdell blends musical talent and humor in a new CD.

It was only a matter of time before D.R. Ransdell sought revenge. An Ohio-born gringa who sings and plays violin in Tucson's International Mariachi America, Ransdell has spent more than 15 years, night after night, performing songs written by macho men complaining about women.

Now she has released her own mariachi CD, Diana Canta la Venganza, giving men a good poke with the end of her bow and sharp lyrics.

Ransdell--called Diane by her parents, Diana by her Spanish-speaking friends and D.R. by everybody else--says she had no trouble enlisting six of her Hispanic colleagues, most of them men, to perform on the album.

"Everybody was really supportive, and I was really surprised," she says. "It was an unusual project, and we all just plowed ahead."

Ransdell prints her original Spanish lyrics in the CD booklet, but declines to offer English translations.

"Even in the most famous songs, things that sound romantic in Spanish sound really stupid in English," she says. She does translate the titles, though, and provides a one-sentence summary of each song. The gist of "¿Cómo crees?" is "I've got no reason to be interested in you." "Tantas cosas" puts across the point that "There are so many things I could be doing instead of wasting time thinking of you." Then there's "No te soporto más" ("I Can't Stand You Anymore"): "You think you're hot stuff--as if!"

The songs are meant to be humorous, and Ransdell stresses that she is no man-hater; she just has little tolerance for jerks.

"If I didn't like men, I wouldn't be able to play in a group like this," she says.

"One night, a friend of mine from a different mariachi group showed up drunk at my apartment at midnight wanting company, and even complaining that I was out of beer," she recalls. "As soon as I kicked him out, I wrote a song about it. That was my first one."

Ransdell says lyrics came quickly to her, although she subjected them to heavy revision. Melodies were equally easy for her, but it was in the arrangements where she ran into trouble.

"When we got into the studio, everything sounded too crowded," she says. "I forgot what the trumpet's range was, so I wrote things that were too hard for the trumpet to play. And I did one piece in F minor, which was really hard for everybody to play in tune. That's the song with the worst violin intonation."

Most of the problems got cleared up before the final takes, thanks to help from engineer Doug Martin, himself a trumpeter who has a realistic notion of who can play what, and Gilberto Velez, the leader of Mariachi America and the instructor of mariachi music at the University of Arizona.

"Gilbert was very helpful with the rhythms--I'm notoriously bad at rhythms--and deciding whether we should do a song as a bolero instead of a ranchera," she says. "I don't have a bolero voice; I sing fast songs better, so most of these are fast to match what I do best, and they're more fun."

Ransdell may be self-critical, but Velez is enthusiastic about her songs, praising both her Spanish lyrics and her melodies.

"I think they're great," he says. "I was very impressed. And you know, she is from Springfield, Ohio."

That's been an unending source of surprise and amusement for her fellow musicians and her audiences, although it didn't take her long to prove herself as a mariachi musician.

A classically trained violinist, Ransdell took her undergraduate degree in Spanish (she later obtained a doctorate in rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English) and spent five years teaching English in Durango, Mexico. While there, she played in the city's classical orchestra. On Saturday nights, she'd party with locals who would sit around singing traditional Mexican songs, and found out that her stand partner also played mariachi with his brothers.

"Me, kind of presumptuous, I figured whatever he could do I could do," she says.

So when she moved to Tucson in 1987 she practiced about a month with mariachi tapes, and then walked into El Mariachi restaurant, where International Mariachi America played almost every night, asking to join.

"I don't look Mexican, so this was a big surprise for them, but I speak Spanish pretty well," she says. "So they handed me a violin and said, 'Play along for a couple of songs.' I faked my way through, and wound up staying. I found out later that they never expected me to last more than a week, but I was stubborn. It was hard getting started, because for one thing you've got to know 300 songs, and for another thing I was used to playing in an orchestra where you're safe; it was difficult playing right in people's faces."

"We trained 150 musicians out of that restaurant," notes Velez, who has moved the group to Micha's since El Mariachi closed last year. "So when she showed up we said, 'Sure, come on in.' At that time we had some really good violinists from Guadalajara, and they taught her a lot. In the beginning, it took her a while to learn all the songs and to sing in key, but she never had a bad attitude about learning, and that's probably why she's doing so well right now. She's turned into a real entertainer, and the audiences love her."

Ransdell has written 50 or 60 songs along the lines of the 11 she has recorded on Diana Canta la Venganza, so more CDs may be in the works. Yet Ransdell stresses that men should not regard this as a castrating-feminist assault.

"This isn't 'I hate you,'" she says. "It's 'I'm gonna give you a hard time, and you'd better be ready to laugh about it.'"