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Q & A: Mariachi violinist hits the right notes

SUSIE LEMONT/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA English professor Diana Ransdell and local mariachi band Mariachi America recently released the album Diana canta la venganza. Ransdell also recently published her first novel, "Amirosian Nights." Ransdell will be at book signing on Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the UofA Bookstore.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday February 20, 2003

Many musicians long to produce their first CD, to hear their own tunes played back to them at the push of a button, and to see their face on posters and on the music racks at stores. Many writers fantasize about their first published novel, yearning to touch the glossy front cover of a book that reads "Written by (Insert name here)." For many, these dreams are only trifles that exist outside of reality. But that is not the case for Diana Ransdell.

Ransdell is an English professor at the University of Arizona who has recently released her debut album titled Diana canta la vengaza. This CD features the local mariachi band Mariachi America; Ransdell has played the violin in this group for the past 18 years. Another success for Ransdell was the release of her first novel last summer. The book, titled "Amirosian Nights," follows the story of a girl named Rachel. The main character is a mariachi player from Tucson who travels to Greece and plays in a bouzouki band (Greek folk music).

Ransdell will be attending a book-signing Wednesday at the UofA Bookstore from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Wildcat: Why do you play the violin? Is there something about it that fascinates you?

Ransdell: When we were like in fifth grade, we got the chance to choose an instrument. I really liked the way the violin sounded. I was only 10, so you're only going on a gut emotion. I think in retrospect, the violin is actually the closest to the human voice and it sort of mimics it in some way, and so I think there's probably a connection between listening to someone sing and playing the violin that I like.

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· Ransdell will be attending a book signing Wednesday at the UofA Bookstore from 11a.m. until 1 p.m.

Wildcat: What about mariachi music interested you?

Ransdell: I got acquainted with mariachi music when I went to Mexico to live. I got an undergraduate degree to teach Spanish, so that's why I went to Mexico afterward. What happened when I got down there, was that I found out that most people had a guitar and knew how to play. On a lot of Saturday nights, what we would do for fun is, we'd go to somebody's house and sing songs. We had these little songbooks and would write down our favorite songs and we'd just sit around singing them. Mariachi is a lot like that, because it's a lot of the same type of songs that they do. I didn't do much playing of mariachi music when I was in Mexico. I played in an orchestra, and my stand partner kept talking about "Oh you know mariachi music, it's easy," which was a total lie ... I told him later, "Hey Victor, you liar" ... but anyway, when I came back to the States, I really missed being in Mexico. I couldn't get into (the Tucson Symphony) because I wasn't up to that yet (I don't do sight reading very well), and I found out that there was a mariachi group in town that had a woman in it, and that was significant because in Mexico it really isn't the custom to have women musicians yet, except for the occasional singer. So when I found out there was a group like that in town, I showed up one day and asked them for a job.

Wildcat: Who wrote the songs for Diana canta la venganza?

Ransdell: I did all the songs and all the music for that CD.

Wildcat: Do you have a background in writing music, then?

Ransdell: No, it's more like by the time I started writing songs, I'd played in a mariachi for 11 years, and one of the things you do in a mariachi is play the same songs over and over, because those are the songs that people ask for; so anyway, you know the structure (of the music) without trying to.

Wildcat: What has been your biggest influence in life outside your career?

Ransdell: Probably travel. I've had the chance to do a lot of traveling, a lot of it while I was growing up; my dad was teaching Spanish and German and had to brush up on it. We spent many summers when I was young in other countries, one in Mexico, one in Germany ... So that was really good exposure for me, and I went on to study foreign language, so that was direct connection there, but when you work in other cultures and language groups, you sort of think in different directions, so that's been really useful to me.

Wildcat: What is your favorite memory pertaining to your career?

Ransdell: There was a time in our group when we had a couple of violin players from Guadalajara, and there was a certain moment when I realized that I was really thankful to be able to play with them, because they were such good players. The funny thing about mariachi music is that you have to learn everything by ear, and I had classical training at the time, and had never learned to learn by ear, and that's difficult. So for me to realize that I was able to play with these great musicians from Guadalajara, that made me feel like I'd really achieved something.

Wildcat: Other than music and writing, what is the biggest passion in your life?

Ransdell: Along with travel, learning languages has always been something that fascinates me. I speak Spanish fairly well, I speak a lot of Italian; modern Greek and German I've worked on, but I'm not very good at.

Wildcat: Conversely, what is one thing that you can look back on in your life and think "That was really good, I did that right"?

Ransdell: When I graduated from the University of Illinois, I got a job offer to go to Mexico and teach in Durango, which is where I ended up living for five years and it was tremendously influential in my life. But at the time, in some ways it didn't seem like a very good idea. The next week, I got another offer to go to Florida, which would have been a completely different life, a completely different path, so I took kind of a chance on someplace where I knew I wouldn't make much money, I was just going for the experience, but it turned out to be a very rich experience, and one that has governed so much of what I have done since then.

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