Thursday, March 15, 2012
The reason Caminos del Arte director Nicolasa Alvarez thought mariachi music should be incorporated into her east Salinas nonprofit youth program was as simple as looking in the mirror. It’s part of her – and her target population’s – collective identity.
“Mariachi is a cultural tradition for Mexicans and it’s part of who we are,” she says. “The children who are learning how to play it are learning where they came from and that’s exciting for them.”
What’s exciting for any mariachi fan, regardless of their level of experience: Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán headlines the Mariachi Festival on Sunday at the Fox Theater. MVT owns a reputation as one of the best groups in existence.
“They’re the original mariachi band,” Alvarez says. “They were the first. Anyone that knows anything about mariachi music knows Vargas.”
The group began in 1898 in Jalisco, Mexico – about 100 miles south of Guadalajara, it’s now considered the birthplace of Mariachi music – under the leadership of Gaspar Vargas (his son Silvestre took over later). The longtime outfit pulls from five generations and never arrives with less than 10 artists. Its extensive spectacles of song and dance are fueled by trumpets, guitarras de golpes, violins, harps and guitars. Shows often sell out, and incorporate marathon 15-minute medleys with tunes both traditional (“Ciudad Victoria”) and familiar (“La Bamba”) – which are met with a kinetic sea of dancing and non-stop hooting, hollering and singing along.
More than half a century after Vargas planted his mariachi seeds, Mariachi Imperial de Mexico’s story sprouted in 1968 in Morelia, Michoacán, when the Rodriguez and Moreno brothers joined forces in order to make money performing for Acapulco tourists. In 1989, the outfit moved its base north to Southern California where it has remained ever since with its new director, Ramon’s younger brother, J. Mario. In addition to Mexican classics like “Amor de Los Dos” and “El Pastor,” Mariachi Imperial has also been known to throw in an American tune with a mariachi mood. The group’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” popularized by the late Whitney Houston, brings weeping trumpets and ethereal strings to dramatic but celebratory vocals.
Meanwhile, Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar features a group of musicians all under 30, with the exception of band director Jaime Cuellar. The group of youngsters earned its first opportunity to play alongside Mariachi Vargas back in 2008 at a festival in their hometown of Bakersfield. The world’s best mariachi outfit must have been impressed with the mostly-teenage musicians because they’ve been invited to play with them several times since.
The Mariachi Festival closes with a monster jam featuring all three groups, which add up to more than 30 people on one stage. There’s definitely no other genre of music – not even the big crews of hip-hop – that can get away with that.
THE MARIACHI FESTIVAL begins 5pm Sunday, March 18, at the Fox Theater, 241 Main St., Salinas. $50-$100. 758-8459.