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At the heady peak of his career, Frank Sinatra's vocal mastery was so absolute that his pop peers simply called him "The Voice."
In the emo-punk wing of the local music scene, there can be no question that Yolanda Bejarano is "The Voice." As leader of the squalling, powerhouse quartet Slugger, she unleashed a piercing vocal wail on unwitting audiences, zeroing in on romantic rage and frustration with the kind of frightening precision usually reserved for brain surgeons. To witness any of her intensely committed performances was to wonder how someone so small and unprepossessing could deliver something so big and ferocious.
Slugger broke up last summer when bassist Craig Browning decided to leave the band. Bejarano jokingly says she's "already prepared for my divorce," having gone through the emotional tumult of a band split. After a brief period of sadness and creative doubt, she's now on the precipice of a double coup, putting together a new punk band and fronting an intriguing mariachi recording project, with both projects tentatively sharing the umbrella name Chula.
Though she's one of the most dynamic talents on the local underground-rock scene, and lists PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney and Bjsrk among her musical inspirations, Bejarano received her punk enlightenment relatively late. A native of tiny Roll, Arizona, she primarily heard pop music on the radio or mariachi records that her parents played, with an occasional Smiths or Cure track bleeding in from a Mexican station. So, while her new mariachi excursion might seem like a strange detour for someone embedded in Tempe's underground-rock clique, it's actually a kind of full-circle return to her roots.
Five years ago, she moved to Tempe to attend Arizona State University, and quickly caught up with all the music she'd been missing in Roll. Though her only previous musical experience had been singing a cappella versions of Whitney Houston songs into a "dinky tape recorder," she found herself drawn to the idea of playing in a band.
"Me and my friend Freddie, we'd go around every night, we'd hang out inside the clubs and watch the live bands play," she says. "It didn't matter what kind of band it was. We'd say, 'We want to do that, we want to do that.' So one day we went to Milano's music store, and she bought a bass and I got a guitar."
That fateful purchase led to the formation of Slugger, and for the past couple of years, Bejarano employed dissonant emo-punk as the sole sonic outlet for her angst. Any idea of attempting mariachi was probably a distant memory when she and a friend recently attended the grand opening of the Phoenix gay bar Paco Paco and unexpectedly caught a performance from the veteran local group Mariachi Colonial.
"There were all these drag queens and there was this mariachi playing, and I thought they were so excellent," she says. "People were taking turns [singing], it was like karaoke with the mariachis. And I couldn't think of a song to sing, but after they finished playing, I asked for one of their business cards, and they asked, 'What for? Do you have a wedding or quinceanera?' And I said, 'No, I want to sing mariachi.' And they said, 'Okay, call me tomorrow.'"
Whatever skepticism these 50-something men initially had about Bejarano's seriousness was swiftly swept aside when they heard her sing. With help from a tape of old standards her enthused mother assembled for her, Bejarano naturally fell into the vocal acrobatics she'd heard on her parents' records as a child. Now she's anxious to begin recording tracks, with serious rehearsals set to begin this week. She's even contemplating the risky but exciting prospect of including a few self-written mariachi tunes.
"I want to write my own," she says. "I have a couple of songs, but it's hard writing mariachi. You can't compare yourself to Juan Gabriel or those people."
Initially, Bejarano envisioned this mariachi busman's holiday as merely a gift to her parents, a collection of her singing music that they could appreciate. But popular demand in Roll started rolling before a note had been committed to tape.
"All my mom's friends heard about it, 'cause the town is so small," she says. "So she called all her friends and said, 'Yolanda is recording with a mariachi.' And they all said, 'Yeah!' So they all want a copy, and my mom said, 'Yolanda, you have to give me more than one CD.' So I don't think it'll be that expensive. I'll hold some blood drives or bake sales and raise up the money to put it out."
Much as she respects the mariachi musical tradition, Bejarano isn't a fan of the costumes that come with it. So when she makes her live debut with Mariachi Colonial, she'll be decked out in something a bit more campy and glamorous, a self-designed Mexican diva look, complete with glitter, sequins and feather boas.