La Mafia: 1982 - 1997
by Abel Salas
"Believe it or not, I used to come to this neighborhood all the time to visit my aunt and my uncle," says La Mafia lead vocalist Oscar De La Rosa. Comfortably perched behind the wheel of a black BMW 325i convertible, the La Mafia frontman whips the ride around sharp corners and over chuck-holes that riddle the streets of Houston's Northside.
With Italian-made Momo low-profile rims, the car is sleek. While not consciously extravagant, De La Rosa seems to be making a statement. He remembers his roots as a Houston homeboy, but he's proud of how far the band has come in the 16 years since they were featured in Vajito magazine's inaugural issue.
Touring the old-school stomping grounds, De La Rosa is lost in reverie. "That's the barber shop where I had my first job sweeping the floors," he says, pointing to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall storefront off of North Main. Nearby are Travis Elementary School, his alma mater, and the church warehouse which doubled as a roller rink, he recalls. Much about the place has changed, but some things have remained the same.
"That used to be my dad's bar," De La Garza. Directly facing Main, the building is now home to a law office.
These days La Mafia is a bona fide Houston success story. Roughly 15 years and twenty-something abums later, La Mafia is an international sensation that can boast three Grammy nominations, a sprawling business operation that occupies almost an entire city block and the kind of hectic touring schedule that would put most contemporary alternative rock bands to shame.
Behind the calculated growth, producer/arranger and keyboard/accordion player Armando "Mando" Lichtenberger, Jr. has been with the group from the beginning. His keen ear and an eye for marketing have helped La Mafia keep pace with a changing Tejano music scene while staking out a broader audience for the veteran sextet.
According to De La Rosa, the group began as Los Mirasoles, a play on the word for sunflowers (girasoles). Alongside brother Leonard Gonzales on guitar, the two began their performing careers inside the Northside cantina owned by their father, Henry Gonzales, Sr. Thus for many years, the band was known as Oscar, Leonard y La Mafia.
Cutting their chops on ranchera standards and inspired by a world of music from Cornelio Reyna and Little Joe to KISS, La Mafia was born about the time Oscar and Leonard were joined by a slender Texas-Mexican lad with a German last name. Originally from Alice, Texas, Mando Lichtenberger brought with him a vast and highly-trained accordion virtuosity that he translated easily to keyboards and synthesizers. While the rest of the La Mafia line-up has changed and evolved with the times, these three have remained the constant, driving force, the La Mafia heart and soul.
The band now features David de la Garza on back-up vocals and keyboards, Michael Aguilar on skins (drums) and Eutimio "Tim" Ruiz on the six-string electric bass. And while the latest record on Sony Discos, Un Millón de Rosas, has been highly touted as the best effort to date, it is important to note that the previous four albums, Estas Tocando Fuego, Ahora y Siempre, Vida and Exitos en Vivo surpassed sales records galore, handily garnering the band triple and quadruple platinum records in each case.
In a bold move south, La Mafia parlayed an international flavor to critical accclaim and commerical popularity throughtout Mexico during the late 80s and early 90s, only to return home with Un Millón de Rosas. The latter has been classified as an album which integrates the early appeal of accordion and synthesizer-fueled rancheras, the mega-hit ballads which brought them wide-spread fame in Mexico and the pop based cumbias favored on both sides of the border.
A testament to the band's enduring presence in both the Tejano and international music industries, Un Millón de Rosas clocked in at over 100,000 pre-sale units before it was even released. Year end number put sales figures in the U.S. alone at closer to 400,000 copies.
In 1997, La Mafia concludes another year at the top of the Latin music charts with several Billboard magazine distinctions such as No. 1 Hot Latin Track for 1996 and No. 1 Hot Mexican Regional Track for 1996. The Grammy nomination for Best Mexican-American/Tejano Performance means that the band will travel to New York on February 26th for the annual Grammy Awards ceremony where they will be among the nation's foremost musical artists.
Currently in the studio, notes De La Rosa, the band is hard at work on a brand new album. The 1997 release, say members of the band, is likely to be just as powerful as the last album.
"I'm really pleased with the progress. What we've recorded so far sounds really good," says De La Rosa. And in 1998, adds Lichtenberger with a sly grin, fans might even look forward to the English-language "crossover" album.