News Column

Despite stereotypes, mariachi skills deserve respect

December 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 07--SAN ANTONIO -- Mariachi musicians are a common fixture along the River Walk, at El Mercado and in Mexican restaurants and bars, and almost required at any grand opening in this Mexican-American town.

Perhaps it's because of this that locals mostly dismiss the music as cantina music for tourists.

"It's been that way for a long time," said Jonathan Clark, a mariachi music historian, musicologist and musician.

But most mariachi musicians are classically trained, play a variety of instruments and sing, as well.

Henry Gomez, a mariachi and fixture at Mi Tierra's Mariachi Bar, is an example of such a hard-working multi-instrumentalist. His string arrangements have graced several Grammy and Latin Grammy-winning projects, from Selena to Ruben Ramos.

"I can't just depend on arranging jobs and recordings to make a living," he said. "A lot of top mariachis find themselves playing around the bar. That's the way it is."

Despite years of younger generations continuing to study the genre and taking it seriously, the stereotype of an intrusive restaurant mariachi persists.

This was evidenced by the reaction to Sebastien De La Cruz, who unwittingly turned Game 3 of the NBA Finals into a political immigration debate when Americans across the country sent tweets encouraging the award-winning San Antonio mariachi to "go back to Mexico."

Such displays of lingering racism run counter to the realities on display at Cynthia Mu oz's Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, where cultural pride and musical virtuosity rule. For 19 years, she's been among the music's loudest and most influential advocates.

Mariachi music, lush with strings and brass instruments, demands virtuosity to play it. This week, it commands attention for attracting a youthful and astonishingly diverse demographic of musicians and fans.

Mu oz, creator and producer of the weeklong festival of student mariachi competitions, showcases, workshops and concerts, said her kids know the score: there sometimes is a price "in presenting the best of our culture."

"We haven't always seen mariachi music presented in the very best light," said Mu oz, whose nationally known festival celebrates its 19th year.

The grand finale concert is at Lila Cockrell Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

"People still have that image of the Frito Bandito little guy in their head. And so many times when people think about mariachi music, it's more in the negative," Mu oz said.

"It's just a lack of understanding that crosses over even to Mexican-Americans and Mexicans living in San Antonio ... they have no idea mariachi music is this good," she said. "It's beyond their imagination."

Musical stepchild

In Mexico City, mariachi music is seen as commercialized music for tourists, Clark explained. Along the border, it's viewed as too folkloric for serious consideration.

But forget the stereotype of the paunchy, frayed mariachi restaurant musician. It doesn't represent the reality or rich history of mariachi music.

"Because it's ubiquitous, it's something that people always take for granted," said Clark, whose quest to document mariachi music began in the 1970s with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitl n.

"A lot of the more traditional musicologists considered mariachi something that had been prostituted, commercialized. Its history slipped between the cracks and never got documented. But these new kids are rallying around their roots," Clark said.

Mariachi's history is mysterious, and the music often is confused with other genres.

Clark called it a sub-genre, a stepchild confused with the pop of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass or as music for Cinco de Mayo. Its most famous face is Vicente Fernandez, a star since the 1960s.

But Mexico City's world famous Mariachi Vargas, for example, plays music that often is symphonic and operatic.

It's emotional and intense. There are classical elements, as well as flourishes of gypsy and African rhythms.

Saturday's concert, featuring top students, will show how the culture and the music come together.

Past finalist Victoria Acosta, who auditioned for season 12 of "American Idol," explained the feeling for the new generation.

"It's a labor of love for the young people," said Acosta, who sings with Los Bad Apples. "This is American culture now."

Mu oz said that's nothing to ridicule.

"This whole generation is young, beautiful and talented," she said.

For example, Texas State University student Robert Casillas began playing accordion when he was 6. He was playing professionally in conjunto and Tejano bands when he entered the mariachi program at Brackenridge High School.

There's a new crop right behind him.

Fresh faces

Arizona native Nizhoni Begay is a sophomore at Incarnate Word High School. Her father is Navajo; her mother is Mexican-American. She sings Renaissance period madrigals in the school choir. Like many 15 year olds, she listens to pop music and Tejano.

But mariachi speaks to her, said Begay, who also plays conjunto accordion. She started in second grade in Tucson. Her friends think she's "pretty cool."

"A lot of people think that mariachis don't know how to read music. A lot of musicians think that mariachis don't know how to read music, or (that they) learn everything by ear," Begay explained. "I've known how to read music my whole life."

Onstage, she wears vintage trajes (suits). They're her political statement.

"A lot of people might look down on a traje de charro or something perceived as Mexican. People associate that with a lower class," Begay said. "It's a political statement of self-pride."

Sometimes she wears sequined '50s-style dresses made famous by singers Lucha Villa and Lola Beltran.

She celebrates her Navajo roots, too, but not in the same way.

"I never really got into the music, but I do participate in powwows and different ceremonies," Begay said.

Luling tween sensation Anani Rhames is the only African-American mariachi in the finals. She's precocious, big-voiced and has been singing mariachi since she was a tot, "captivated" by mariachis at Mi Tierra.

"I like the way it makes me feel and the story it tells," said Rhames, 12, who has showcased at South by Southwest Music & Media Conference.

But there's something more important going on.

"I'm making friends across racial lines," she said.

Her mother, Chiquella Tippens-Rhames, acknowledged it's inspiring, if unusual to see in the Mexican-American-dominated genre.

"She's turning a new page. Not only is she a young girl, she's also African-American," Tippens-Rhamessaid.

"She's taken it on to be a leader. Music is a universal language and crosses all cultural boundaries. She fell in love with the culture. She's never let it be an obstacle, even though she's run into opposition. I'm sure some people thought she was a tad bit confused. But she has a Latin soul. It's kind of jaw-dropping."

Rhames wins a crowd over.

"My traje gives me superpowers," she said. "When I perform, I'm very nervous. But when I have my traje on, I just get in the zone. Man, I can do anything. It gives me a lot of confidence."

That fresh self-expression, determination and pride starts young.

Bryanna Rich, 12, epitomizes the new face, attitude and buzz around mariachi. She can't really speak Spanish, but she soars when she sings it. Her mother helps her learn and translate the lyrics. She plays violin, too.

"It makes me feel blessed and happy," said Rich, who also loves Taylor Swift and One Direction. "There is room for everybody. If you like it, you can sing it."

hsaldana@express-news.net

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