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Mariachi: 25 years of greatness

Mariachi’s best have thrilled conference emcee every time

Jose Ronstadt (right) has emceed the Tucson International Mariachi Conference for the past 25 years.

Jose Ronstadt (right) has emceed the Tucson International Mariachi Conference for the past 25 years.

Acts have come and gone but the one constant through all 25 years of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference has been emcee Jose Ronstadt. He is the master of bilingual patter, whose pre-show antics with the crowd showed us how far people have come for the Espectacular concerts, and whose genial words from the stage somehow kept it all in motion with a dancer’s grace. The animated news anchor of KWHY TV 22 Telemundo in Los Angeles kindly agreed to share his recuerdos (memories) of his years with the event.

- Daniel Buckley

I have this continuous movie reel playing on my mind.

The soundtrack had to be produced in heaven. The scenarios are magnificent and, above all, there is a showcase of magical moments accompanied by the symphonic union of the greatest mariachi ensembles I have ever witnessed: Vargas, Camperos and Cobre. Their guitarrones and trompetas, violins and vihuelas and an occasional harp interweave the rhythmic zapateados (footwork) of deeply rooted traditional dances with a parade of color and movements that are part of this annual ritual that keeps on nurturing our hearts and souls.

Every April the ritual is reborn, cultivated by children of all ages and the most diverse blend of men and women that become one under a colorful zarape crafted by the gods of mariachi music.

These are the moments and recollections of my past 25 years with the festival. They are not necessarily in chronological order. Suffice to say, these are some of the highlights of this epic film called the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

I vividly remember introducing for the first time the most amazing ensemble of musicians, whose voices and distinguished demeanor I thought were heaven-sent. I introduced them as “Este

es mi mariachi: Mariachi Cobre.” I am eager to present them again this year the way I have done it for the past 25 years.

Silvestre Vargas stands out in my mind. The legendary founder of Mariachi Vargas was standing by himself just before our second or third year. I was in awe of him as I introduced myself to ask him how he wanted Mariachi Vargas introduced to the audience. He simply said, “como lo que son” (like what they are): el mejor mariachi del mundo, the best mariachi in the world.

Nati Cano was another legendary figure I knew a lot about but had never met. To this day, Nati Cano and his famous Camperos are truly one of my most admired and appreciated ensembles. I will forever be grateful to Nati Cano for giving me the gift of seeing my daughter Marisa Ronstadt perform with Camperos.

My proudest moment on that stage was admiring the love and respect Marisa felt for the Tucson International Mariachi Conference and seeing her perform the music I love.

The most surprising and unexpected event took place when the La Frontera Center board of directors inducted me into the Mariachi Hall of Fame. Can you imagine a kid growing up in Nogales, with no particular music talent, to be included with Cobre, Vargas, Linda, Lola, Nati, Rocio? To this day, that is the recognition I value the most.

A highlight that very few people know took place at the old Santa Rita Hotel. Lola Beltran wanted to meet Linda Ronstadt. I took Linda to Lola’s room, where Lola taught Linda a different version of “Cucurucucu Paloma.” I translated for both of them as best I could. The night of the concert, Lola invited Linda to accompany her with her famous song. Lola’s version was in an indigenous tongue, pretty amazing stuff, especially seeing Linda like a little girl in front of a goddess.

These are some of the things I can never forget:

Lola’s hands; Jose Luis Rodriguez “El Puma” wearing a mariachi “traje” borrowed from one of the members of Mariachi Cobre; the elegance of Guadalupe Pineda, the showmanship of Pedro Fernández, the green hair of Lucha Villa, who thought I was one of the waiters assigned to attend her until she saw me onstage and just laughed it off; the mermaid dress and rolling eyes of Beatriz Adriana; the singing Lucero as opposed to the talking Lucero; Mariachi Cobre’s rendition of the national anthem; the Tucson Symphony with Mariachi Vargas and Mariachi Cobre; having the difficult task of telling Ruben Fuentes, the great composer/arranger, that we needed to cut a couple songs of Mariachi Vargas presentation because they were going a little too long.

Also, the contagious smile of Pepe Martinez, the face of Vargas; Lola Beltran stopping the concert to present Gilbert Ronstadt a gorgeous white zarape in the name of all “mexicanos” as a sign of gratitude to Linda for her enormous contributions to mariachi music; the night a few members of the Ronstadt family sang onstage; the tribute to Mariachi Cobre; Linda’s duet with Lalo Guerrero; Steve Carrillo’s nervousness when singing centimeters away from a sexy Vikki Carr; Steve Carrillo’s interpretation of “El Pastor”; the unforgettable introduction of “Hay Vienen Los Camperos.”

And, Lola Beltran singing with Maria Elena Beltran, her daughter. Maria Elena had been crying just minutes before and I had to gently tell her that once the light goes on, the show must go on; the spectacular Ballet Folklórico de Colima; the intense folkloric rehearsals conducted by a true master Rafael Zamarripa.

Linda Ronstadt’s presence at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference really established this festival as the king of mariachi festivals. She brought a superstardom talent in a most critical moment in mariachi music. She single-handedly brought this magnificent tradition to mainstream America. The reaction from the audience the first time she walked on that stage was thunderous, reaffirmation of the language and culture that was kept alive by generations of Mexican-Americans. I still believe she has been the most significant element in the history of the festival.

My all-time favorite guest artists are Lola Beltran and Linda Ronstadt.

By the way, to this day, the worst and most regrettable performance was Pablo Montero, who could not sustain a note even if he was born again.



Check the Citizen’s Mariachi 07 site for a complete resource on all things mariachi and ballet folklorico.

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