Rising Mexican banda crooner Espinoza Paz pours on the romance
Halfway through his Friday night concert in Mexico's biggest indoor auditorium, the Mexican banda crooner Espinoza Paz lost his black cowboy hat. It either fell off or disappeared in a scrum of fans who scrambled to touch him during one of several times he left the stage to come near.
When it happened, some in the audience nervously sat up. In folklore as in banda music, a vaquero without his vaquero hat is like Samson without his locks.
Paz didn't miss a beat. The singer kept performing, finishing a two-hour show with his shaved head exposed to the lights above. Along the way, he gained two toy gifts, barrages of kisses and hugs, and the singalong adulation of more than 9,000 fans who sold out the stately Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park.
The venue, coveted by any Mexican performer, is also known as the "Colossus on Reforma."
It was a crowning and emotional night for the singer and songwriter, a milestone in Espinoza Paz's fast rise from undocumented farm laborer in California's Central Valley to teen idol of Mexican regional music.
Expect to hear the name more. With immigrants and their children increasingly building fluid lives, north and south, the genre is all but assured to be a hot-selling scene on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years to come. Paz -- with his rural roots, rags-to-riches story, and handsome looks -- is its golden boy.
"You know, they say the audiences in Mexico City are the hardest to please," a beaming Paz told the crowds in his unvarnished ranchero voice near the end of his set. "So thank you for believing in me. Thank you for showing up. I thought it was just going to be me and my manager."
Near the stage, throngs of women up from their seats were held back by security guards in business suits. They screeched out Paz's name and reached toward the stage. One lucky lady got a two-song serenade: Paz's grandmother, pictured above.
With three records produced in three years, Paz has quietly built a wide fan base by singing unabashedly sappy ballads that pull at all the right heartstrings. He steers clear of narcocorridos, with their drug-war themes, or immigration-themed protest songs.
His breakthrough hit, "Lo Intentamos," from his second album, is about seriously regretting a breakup. "El proximo viernes," another Paz hit, is basically about the same thing, but this time the singer dares to steal a kiss from his lost love. The title of another Paz crowd pleaser, "Al diablo lo nuestro," translates roughly as "To hell with what we had."
Spot a trend here?
"I'm from the rancho, I'm from the pueblo," Paz told La Plaza during an interview at the posh Nikko Hotel a night before his debut at the Auditorio Nacional.
"I had never heard pop music until I started doing this. Out in the rancho all I used to listen to was a station called the Rancherita de Culiacan."
As he grew up, his father and grandparents fed him the finest bands in the Mexican tearjerker arena -- Los Bukis, Los Temerarios, Los Pasteles Verdes -- and "I absorbed all that," Paz said.
After his mother passed away while he was in his teens, Paz left his rural rancho to join family in Sacramento. He crossed the border without papers. Some of his relatives are still undocumented.
"It's sad what's happening over there, in Arizona, in other states that are trying to do the same thing," Paz said, referring to proposed anti-illegal immigration laws. "What I do know is, they need us to work. I used to work 12-hour days back in Sacramento."
Paz picked up songwriting along the way. During a visit home in Sinaloa, he approached the microphone at a community dance in a neighboring rancho. "When I started singing, the people didn't dance. They just looked at me, in this special way, like they were saying, 'You have something special.'"
"The day I left that dance," he added, "I said, 'I want to be famous.'"
First Paz dedicated himself to writing hit songs for other big-name banda artists, such as La Arrolladora Banda el Limon and Jenni Rivera. But with his sharp looks and clean-cut rancho fashion sense -- and those braces sparkling on his teeth -- there was little doubt in his mind that he'd eventually break out for a performing career.
His second album, "Yo No Canto, Pero Lo Intentamos," topped the U.S. Latin and Mexican regional Billboard charts in 2009. His most recent release, "Del Rancho Para el Mundo" in 2010, also hit No. 1 on Billboard's Mexican regional charts. Last year he was named BMI's Latin Songwriter of the Year.
Paz, now 29, is currently working on a record that will feature the mariachi style. He's so far recorded one pop collaboration, with Spanish singer David Bisbal.
And he's done it all without delving into the themes that often crowd the banda genre -- drug-trafficking, border-crossing, revenge, violence. Paz is well aware of the headline-grabbing killings of narcocorrido artists in recent years. Many of those deaths have occurred in his home state, the historic base of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
"I never get involved," he said. "I have my same friends. If I go out with a young lady, I have to know her well. At events I am very respectful to the women. I take care of myself."
In person, Paz projects that same kind of warmth that comes through in his singing voice, raw and heartfelt. He frequently crossed the security line to receive fans onstage at Friday's show, including small children. The audience ate it up.
"I promise you that I'll keep making songs with feeling," he said, waving below a downpour of confetti.
On March 18, Espinoza Paz returns to Los Angeles for a show at the Nokia Theatre downtown.
"Los Angeles has given me so much," Paz told La Plaza. "It was my first chance, my first opportunity, and from there my music started circulating to other states, until making it here where I am today, at the Auditorio Nacional. I'll never forget the fans in Los Angeles."
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photos: Espinoza Paz performing at the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. Credit: Martin Fernandez / AR Prensa y Relaciones Publicas