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Masters of Mariachi

Courtesy of Cynthia Muñoz

By Julia Kline, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 24, 2013

Soaring, symphonic instrumentals punctuated by some of the world’s most talented, classically trained vocalists fill a concert hall. This isn’t the prototypical image of a mariachi performance, but it’s what Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán has been delivering for 115 years, earning it the title, “The Best Mariachi Band in the World.” On Jan. 27, University Musical Society will present Mariachi Vargas at Hill Auditorium, two years after an incredibly popular 2010 performance in Ann Arbor.

Mariachi Vargas was born in 1897 in the small city of Tecalitlán, which is nestled in Southern Jalisco. It was one of the first ensembles playing what is recognized as modern mariachi and has evolved through five generations. Mariachi music was initially a type of Mexican folk music, dating back to the 1860s. Mariachi Vargas is credited for advancing mariachi as an art form and for setting the standard for all other bands in the genre. Famed Mexican composer Rubén Fuentes has been responsible for the band’s artistic direction since the 1950s.

Mariachi Vargas was originally composed of four elements: a guitar, two violins and a harp. Fuentes added a bass guitar, or a guitarrón, and a trumpet, creating a stronger sound. This led former Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos to first coin the phrase, “El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo” in the band’s third generation. Two generations later, Mariachi Vargas is still recognized as one of the greatest mariachi bands in existence.

Cynthia Muñoz represents Mariachi Vargas in the United States, but her story with the band began when she was a middle-school student, completely infatuated with mariachi music. In 1979, Muñoz participated in a San Antonio mariachi festival, the first of its kind, headlined by Mariachi Vargas. Muñoz said she fell in love with the band and attended the festival habitually for the next five years.

What followed was a 10-year hiatus when no mariachi festivals were held in San Antonio. During that time, Muñoz studied advertising, specializing in Hispanic markets and eventually founded her own company, Muñoz Public Relations, which she used to resurrect the idea of a festival headlined by Mariachi Vargas. She has been producing the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio for 18 years and has also started mariachi festivals in other parts of Texas.

“Every time I produce a concert of theirs or I see one of their shows, I feel that same level of excitement that I did when I was 13 years old,” Muñoz said. “Their music is just exhilarating. It brings out this feeling of incredible pride for the culture.”

Mariachi music permeates many facets of Hispanic culture. Mariachi bands perform during La Posada, a Christmas festival that reenacts Mary and Joseph searching for lodging. Bands and revelers go house to house and play traditional holiday songs. It is also popular for mariachi bands to serenade mothers on the eve of Mother’s Day. The ballad “Oh Madre Querida” — or “Oh Beloved Mother” — is often used to express adoration for a mother.

Muñoz explained that mariachi music is so popular among young people in south Texas because it offers them a rare chance to connect with their heritage. Mariachi music has been around for many generations — some of the songs played by modern ensembles date back 100 years — which may explain why it attracts such a wide following.

“It’s quite common here in San Antonio to see someone attend a concert with both their parents and their kids,” Muñoz said. “So many of the songs are about the love of Mexico; it’s folklore music. They also teach the kids about cultural traditions.”

Muñoz said she spent her entire childhood playing at weddings, quinceañeras and funerals. Yes, mariachi bands are even present at somber occasions like funerals, which shatters the stereotype of a chipper, vapid band playing at a Mexican restaurant. There is a set of mariachi songs meant to help people mourn loved ones who have died. On Dia de los Muertos, it is traditional to play mariachi music at the graves of family and friends, even if they have been gone for many years.

Mariachi connects its players to generations long past and also unites current generations. It is very common for a mariachi band to be made up of many members of the same family. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán is no exception.

Jose Pepe Martinez Jr. is a vocalist and violinist in Mariachi Vargas and the son of the band’s musical director, Jose Pepe Martinez Sr.

“My maternal and paternal grandfathers were part of Mariachi Vargas in its first and second generation, then my father, now me,” Martinez Jr. said in a translated interview. “They inspired me since I was a child. I’ve been listening to mariachi my whole life. Growing up, it was all around me; I could feel it in my bones.”

Martinez Jr. began studying music at age seven, eventually attending The National Conservatory of Music of Mexico in Mexico City, where he studied voice and violin. His father invited him to be part of Mariachi Vargas in 1993. Even with Martinez Jr.’s extensive musical training and legacy with the band, his position was not guaranteed. All new members undergo a rigorous trial period of up to a year, during which their membership can be revoked. Each musician in Mariachi Vargas’ 13-member lineup proved himself to be truly a master of his craft before becoming a fixture in the ensemble.

Martinez Jr. is also passionate about helping mariachi thrive through new generations of performers. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán holds workshops for students of music, where every instrument, including vocals, is taught by an expert performer. The group further demonstrates their commitment to mentoring young artists by selecting rising stars to perform with them.

At the 2012 Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, the band named Karen Zavala, a Texas State University student, the “Best Mariachi Vocalist in the U.S..” She will be opening for Mariachi Vargas at Hill Auditorium. Zavala recalls growing up idolizing the band.

“I remember the first time I saw them in concert, my sophomore year,” Zavala said. “Everyone is talented, everyone is good at what they play and then when they sing, oh boy, it’s amazing. I’ve always looked up to them.”

“When you know you’re selected by the members, it’s an even greater honor,” Zavala said. “It’s not just any award. The members that are known as the best in the world chose you and saw something special in you. That’s the biggest prize I got.”

Muñoz noted that mariachi music and its education are more respected in the United States than in its own country of origin, but perhaps this is beginning to change. In 2012, Mariachi Vargas participated in the inauguration of a school of mariachi in Mexico.

Not content with simply being the best in their genre, Mariachi Vargas continues to innovate, expanding the boundaries of mariachi music into new territory. In 2010, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned Jose Pepe Martinez Sr. to create the world’s first mariachi opera. The production, “To Cross the Face of the Moon,” centers on an elderly Mexican-American immigrant who reveals to his children on his deathbed that he left behind a family in Mexico. His dying wish is to be reunited with them. Mariachi Vargas shared the stage with members of the Houston Grand Opera, performing their original songs.

As unlikely as it seems, Muñoz believes that there is a lot of crossover between opera and mariachi. Many young people who study mariachi also study opera, she said.

“When you come to the show, you’ll think this is Spanish opera,” Muñoz said. “They play traditional mariachi music, but it’s heavily influenced by operatic and symphonic styles.”

Truly Render, press and marketing manager for UMS said the 2010 Mariachi Vargas show was her first concert with the UMS and also one of the best she’s ever seen.

“The audience was just as much a part of that experience as the artists were,” Render said. “There was a really beautiful moment when one of the audience members, an older gentlemen, was singing along and one of the singers from the ensemble noticed him singing, and they gave him the microphone and he sang the whole song.”

Extending the theme of community, AARP is sponsoring a bus that will bring residents of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development Senior Center in Detroit to the concert. Many of the residents are first-generation Mexican immigrants, who are very excited to see Mariachi Vargas.

Gabriela Boyd, a senior citizen who works for LA SED will be in attendance. Boyd described what mariachi music means to her.

“It’s a representation of life and enthusiasm about life,” Boyd said. “It is very happy, very rhythmic. For us, it’s like vibrating with them. It’s part of our culture since we’re born. It’s really a wonderful occasion to experience that.”

The Jan. 27 performance at Hill Auditorium is sure to transcend stereotypes and showcase mariachi’s vivid history, present stars and up-and-coming talent.

“You have 13 phenomenal musicians and some of the best vocalists in the world that are playing instruments that seem like it is an entire symphony,” Muñoz said. “It’s very beautiful, it’s very upscale and it really does present the best of the Hispanic culture.”

—Todd Needle contributed to this report.