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A Mariachi Life

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At the 25th Annual International Mariachi Conference in Tucson, Ariz., no one will be playing the Mexican Hat Dance. Here mariachi music is not at all simple, and it's taken very seriously. Many of the attendees are young people, and their high-school ensembles are as large as chamber orchestras. In the last couple of decades, mariachi music has become a popular form of music education especially in the Southwest. Some professional mariachis, like Johnny Contreras, have given up a career on the road to teach full time. Weekend America's Julia Barton talks with Contreras about what makes mariachi music so special.

Notes from Editor Julia Barton:

A high school mariachi marathon is like nothing else in the world. Groups of kids in colorful uniforms wait in the wings, holding their instruments and waiting for their chance on stage. The kids wear trajes, fitted jackets and pants or skirts that bear some vague resemblance to the riding outfits of Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys. The most expensive trajes have rows of silver buttons up the sides, all tied together by a single thread. Off stage at a mariachi marathon, it's a sea of red, blue, black, white, and whatever other color the school group have chosen.

And then there's the music. Like a lot of other white folks, most of what I knew about mariachi music came from hearing it at a Mexican restaurant, until I started hearing it performed in Tucson. Pueblo High School instructor Johnny Contreras gave me a mini history-lesson as well. He's been converting his dad's old mariachi records to MP3 so his students can hear the music. In early recordings from the 1930s, mariachi sounds a little bit like Western swing-you can hear the violin players whooping it up (they call those whoops gritos) just like Bob Wills. It's not surprising, since the Mexican vaquero and Texan "buckaroo" occupied much more of the same world back then. As time went on, the mariachis added trumpets and the heavier bass guitarron, and the sound that we think of as more emblematically Mexican was born.

Contreras opened my eyes to the musical versatility of mariachis. Yes, they mostly play the music of Mexico's central regions, especially Jalisco. But a mariachi band is a collection of instrumental voices that can carry almost any tune. Mariachis have recorded whole albums of Beatles songs, the Star Wars theme, and "New York, New York." Every year, Contreras does arrangements of Christmas songs for his high school group to play with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. And his own band, Mariachi Luz de Luna, has toured with Tucson alt-rockers Calexico all over Europe to rave reviews.

Although he's done all that, many weekends you can still find Johnny Contreras playing at local Mexican restaurants around town. When I asked him why he still plays for enchilada-chompers, he was at a loss for words. Why would he be a snob and cut himself off from performing music that he loves so much? The great thing about mariachi music is also the thing that perhaps causes it to be dismissed by the dominant culture. It's open and accessible to all. You usually don't need to buy a ticket to hear it. But it's also a rich and complicated art form that can accommodate almost endless variations. Perhaps that's why so many kids today are lining up to play it.


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  • By Wesley Parish


    Hi. I've also recently got interested in Mariachi music, largely because one of its instruments, the vihuela, shares its name with a mediaeval/renaissance instrument, and searching for information on one lead me to the other, and thence to the guitarron, and from then to music that uses it.

    So far I've only managed to download a few samples from a Tucson University site that has links, I think, with the Smithsonian. I would be overjoyed if Johnny Contreras and others like him would not only convert the old Mariachi records to mp3s, but also put them up on the likes of ibiblio for the rest of the world to listen to and enjoy.

    (I have dreams of somehow bringing the worlds of folk, jazz, renaissance, Indian (Hindustani and Carnatic), music etc - and now Mariachi together, and being able to listen to to them, would be a big step along that pathway.:)


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