Linda Ronstadt recently traded her place in the spotlight for an unlikely forum.
In late March the 62-year-old singer joined musicians Wynton Marsalis and Josh Groban as guests of the U.S. Congress, advocating for an increase in arts education funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. On April 24, she’ll be back in her Tucson hometown to perform at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference’ Espectacular concert, sharing the stage with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.
“I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in some form – my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something, my older brother practicing the ‘Ave Maria’ for his performance with the Tucson Boys Choir, my sister sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater, my little brother struggling to play the huge double bass,” Ronstadt told members of Congress.
“. . . There was no TV, the radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard there, in those two houses, before I was 10 years old, provided me with enough material to explore for my entire career, which has stretched from the late ’60s until now.” (See Ronstadt’s entire speech online at www.tucsoncitizen.com).
She went on to talk about the things that music education provides: teamwork, discipline, a healthy environment for the expression of emotions, a lasting creative outlet, as well as such basics as the type of brain development that yields higher academic achievement, lower dropout rates and higher math skills. Peppered with anecdotal experience and a logical unfolding of successful examples of music education done right in a variety of settings, her speech was well received.
“They were very cordial,” Ronstadt says of the members of Congress. “They seemed very enthusiastic. I felt I was in excellent company with Wynton Marsalis, who is so brilliant and so eloquent. People were very nice to us. But the proof is in the pudding. They’ll say, ‘Of course, art is very important,’ but it’s so important – so much a part of human experience that you take it for granted and then they don’t realize it’s going to cost something, too.”
Ronstadt has been an eclectic voice in pop music since she left home at the age of 17 to start a musical career. From rock and pop to classic American standards, jazz classics, country, Cajun and mariachi music, her output has had a staggering span.
In the mariachi world, her “Canciones de Mi Padre” and “Mas Canciones” ranchera recordings of the late 1980s broadened the audience and brought renewed pride to the ranks of mariachi musicians everywhere, as well as cultural pride to many a Mexican-American (see sidebar of mariachi figures talking of Linda’s impact). For Ronstadt, immersing herself in that music was deeply personal.
“It reunited me with my deepest past, she says. “It reunited me with my childhood music. That was really important. It made me feel less homesick in general. That’s a profound thing. I left home when I was pretty young, so I always feel homesick, my whole life. Even when I’m home.”
She recalls going to Mexico with her parents as a young girl. When her father, Gilbert Ronstadt, had a particularly good year in the hardware business he’d pack up the family and head to Mexico, where he might hire a mariachi to follow them around to different places.
She ribbed her dad about it when her ranchera recordings came out.
“I said to him, ‘Well, I hired a mariachi to follow me around the whole country for a year. So there.’”
Clearly that moment and the resulting tours were important and special to Ronstadt.
“It felt like wherever I looked there was this familiar mixture of Spanish and English and these rich baritone voices that sounded like family voices to me. That was a lovely feeling. It was a very different touring experience from going out on the road with (guitarist) Waddy Waddell, who also is a great pal and wonderful player and all of that. But it was a different vibe altogether.”
This summer she plans to be back out on the road, backed by Los Camperos de Nati Cano, for another chance to expose fans to the beauty and power of the mariachi.
“I know that my show will run just fine without me,” she says of touring with Los Camperos. “These guys are fabulous. All of the musical inner movements of the strings and the horn and the mariachi are so exciting and the traditional songs just make everybody very excited. I’m kind of the most easily expendable thing in the group. I also know that it really pays off to have these mariachi programs in the schools.”
Ronstadt’s dream is to create a summer mariachi math program, both in San Jose where she is strongly involved with the local mariachi festival, and in Tucson, which has a proven track record of such programs working.
“I’d like to see that happen because the two things reinforce one another beautifully,” she says. “As Wynton Marsalis said, ‘You teach math and you can do music because music is super math.’ I’m sure there are a lot of kids who are out during the summer who would love to get a step up on math for the following year.”
IF YOU GO
What: Tucson International Mariachi Conference Participant Showcase
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 23
Where: Tucson Arena, 260 S. Church Ave.
Price: $10 (general admission). Tickets for all events available through the TCC box office and Ticketmaster, 321-1000, www.ticketmaster.com
What: The TIMC Espectacular Concert, featuring Linda Ronstadt, Eugenia Leon, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24
Where: Tucson Arena
What: The Mariachi Mass
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, April 25
Where: St. Augustine Cathedral, 192 S. Stone Ave.
What: Fiesta Garibaldi
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, April 25
Where: DeMeester Outdoor Performing Center at Reid Park, 22nd Street and Country Club Road
Admission: $5 (12 and younger free) at the gate
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY ABOUT RONSTADT’S IMPACT
What is Linda Ronstadt’s legacy to the world of mariachi music?
I asked a variety of musicians and cultural experts this question. Here are some of their replies.
“About Linda, it’s fair to say that she was very influential in popularizing mariachi in the U.S. through her ‘Canciones’ albums. It’s no coincidence that Linda sang at some of the first mariachi conferences in Tucson, obviously helping to gain attention and acclaim for the conference, that the Tucson conference in many ways led the U.S. in the mariachi education movement (mariachi in schools), which has exploded since the mid-1980s, and that her mariachi recordings popularized mariachi across the U.S. at precisely the same time. I still meet people who learn that I play and teach mariachi and say, ‘I loved those Linda Ronstadt mariachi albums’: this was mainstream America’s first (and possibly only) encounter with what I call ‘virtuoso mariachi.’ ”
“Taking it one step further, many friends of mine in Mexico (including members of Mariachi Vargas and others) acknowledge that the mariachi movement in the U.S., especially mariachi education, is having a strong effect on mariachi in Mexico, so it is also fair to say that Linda’s recordings are now positively influencing mariachi at its roots — albeit indirectly.”
- Jeff Nevin, mariachi director and chair of performing arts at Southwestern College, leader of Mariachi Champaña Nevin
“I think a lot of Mexican-Americans that didn’t really embrace their culture – the Mexican side – came out of the closet with that record. I was her vocal coach through the first record and she was worried a bit because she was recording a lot of classics that were recorded by Lola Beltran and Amalia Mendoza and Miguel Aceves Mejia. I would tell her, ‘As long as you get the words down right and pronounce the words good, your voice is your voice. You have the gift. And you have the best musicians surrounding you. I think it will be something special.’
“It was all traditional arrangements. It was like a complete U-turn in a way from what most mariachis in the mainstream were doing. Everybody was sort of updating arrangements and stuff and her thing was to make people feel like they were around a campfire listening to the mariachi music. She had it completely right. She took the mariachi medium into a mainstream audience. She got a Grammy for the record. For us it was an honor to be one of the mariachis backing her up on that first record.”
- Jose Hernandez, director, Mariachi Sol de Mexico
“Linda’s legacy to mariachi music? I would have to distinguish between the music itself, which is Mexican, not strictly ‘mariachi,’ and the mariachi ensemble itself.
I would say that Linda’s respect for and recognition of the musicianship of the mariachis in her recordings and concerts (coupled with her support of the Tucson Conference) gave them a much-needed sense of validation. She treated the mariachi ensemble, not as a mere background group for her, but as an orchestra worthy of performing on its own.
“With regard to the music itself, well, it stands on its own: sones de mariachi (‘La Mariquita‘), sones jarochos (‘El Toro Relajo‘), sones huastecos (‘El Gustito‘), canciones tradicionales (‘Hay Unos Ojos‘), huapangos (‘Dos Arbolitos‘), canciones rancheras (‘Pobre de Mi‘), corridos (‘La Carcel de Cananea‘), etc. These are selections that she selected and recorded . . . not strictly ‘mariachi’ music . . . simply played by a mariachi group. My opinion has been that she should have used actual regional ensembles.”
- Prof. Fermín Herrera, Department of Chicana/o Studies, California State University, Northridge
“Much like Jorge Negrete, who put mariachi music on the international community map through his movies, I think that Linda put mariachi music on the map in the Anglo community. Invariably at our ‘gigs’ someone asks us to play something by Linda Ronstadt. Linda hit a home run when she recorded ‘Canciones de Mi Padre.’ ”
- Alberto Ranjel, director El Mariachi Tapatio, Tucson
“As a young (at the time) musician, she opened our genre to an audience that had either ignored the music or held it in disdain. I believe that it also had a similar impact that LA Nueva Dimension had on the mariachi genre. This recording brought on the evolution of the mariachi. Linda’s ‘Canciones de Mi Padre’ brought international recognition and acceptance of an artform that had for years taken a back seat to other musical styles. Mariachis have since enjoyed playing in some of the finest concert halls in the world. Some of the great mariachi musicians are classically trained and have raised the bar for all mariachis to emulate.
“As a young musician, we were now playing gigs in homes of various ethnicities. It became cool to be a mariachi musician, and profitable.”
- John Nieto, director, Mariachi Aguila, Brackenridge High School, San Antonio, Texas
“Personally I love her! And I always have since I was really little. I cried when she came to the Tucson conference for the first time and my mom wouldn’t take me. To me she opened up mariachi music to my ears. For others I think she opened it up to the non-Hispanic world with her ‘Canciones de mi Padre’ album and tour.”
- Marisa Gallegos, Ballet Folklórico Tapatío, Tucson
“Linda helped bring the female voice into the mariachi mainstream. No matter who your audience is, when you sing her songs, people react and know them because of her recordings. She has become someone that many female mariachi singers can learn from as they try to develop their own style. I know I did. I am very proud of the fact that I used to play for her family parties when I was in Changuitos, and one time in particular, I was singing “Y Andale” for her father, and she came up and complimented me afterward. It was a good feeling. She will always be one of Tucson’s icons.”
- Olga Flores, former mariachi conference vocal instructor
“It is my belief that Linda Ronstadt’s success in regards to mariachi music has made a huge impact with the Hispanic/Latino culture and all across the world, making mariachi music much more known. She has made mariachi music more popular, being that she was already a popular singer of many genres and recognized here in the United States and all over the world. People have seemed to accept her singing mariachi music with open arms. Her beautiful sultry voice has impacted many and taken mariachi music to yet another level.”
- Marisa Orduno, director/owner, Mariachi Mujer 2000
TRANSCRIPT OF RONSTADT’S SPEECH TO CONGRESS
Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee,
Thank you for inviting me to be here. My name is Linda Ronstadt. I am a singer, and I am pleased to be a part of the Americans for the Arts delegation and to come to our nation’s capitol for Arts Advocacy Day. I am also here to testify in favor of a Fiscal Year 2010 appropriation of $205 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Before I discuss the topic of my remarks, I would like to share a bit about my personal background . . .
I grew up in the desert in Tucson, Arizona, on what was then a rural route. My grandfather’s cattle ranch had been whittled down considerably in size as a result of the financial storms of the last Depression, but we were pretty happily established there amid the cactus and the cottonwoods. My family had built a little compound with my grandparents in one house, my father and mother and the four of us kids in the other.
I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in some form – my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something, my older brother practicing the ‘Ave Maria’ for his performance with the Tucson Boys Choir, my sister sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater, my little brother struggling to play the huge double bass.
Sundays, my father would sit at the piano and play most anything in the key of C and sing in his beautiful baritone: love songs in Spanish for my mother, maybe a few Sinatra songs while he remembered single life before children and responsibilities, and before the awful war that we won, that time. My mother would play Ragtime or something from Gilbert and Sullivan.
When we got tired of listening to our own house we would tramp across to my grandmother’s where we got a pretty regular diet of classical music. They had what they called a Victrola and would listen to their favorite opera excerpts played on 78-RPM recordings. On Saturdays, they would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast or sit at the piano trying to unravel a simple Beethoven, Brahms or Liszt composition from a page of sheet music.
Evenings, if the weather wasn’t too hot or freezing and the mosquitoes not threatening to carry us away to the land of Oz, we would haul our guitars outside and sing songs until it was time to go in, which was when we had run out of songs.
There was no TV, the radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard there, in those two houses, before I was 10 years old, provided me with enough material to explore for my entire career, which has stretched from the late sixties until now.
It gave me something else too, something even bigger than that. It gave me an enormous yardstick to measure my experiences against generations of other people. It placed me in a much larger cultural context, and helped me to locate my humanity.
Sometimes, it shocked me when music revealed the intensity of an emotion I was feeling, something I hadn’t even realized I felt so keenly or disturbingly until I had a musical lens to bring it into focus. As renowned music educator Karl Paulnack, music director and conductor of the orchestra at the Boston Conservatory said about great music: “It has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.” Years later, I would have the same emotional experience paging through works of classic literature. It occurred to me: no school curriculum would be complete without the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why then would it be complete without a working knowledge of Mozart, Beethoven or George Gershwin?
In the United States we spend millions of dollars on sports because it promotes teamwork, discipline and the experience of learning to make great progress in small increments. Learning to play music together does all this and more.
José Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, the children’s music curriculum currently considered to be the best in the world, says this: “An orchestra is a community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore, the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the agreement of experience mean? Team practice, the practice of a group that recognizes itself as interdependent where one is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.”
Karl Paulnack has also described how the arts, including music, were able to survive even the nightmarish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps: “The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.’”
Music exists to help us identify our feelings. Through music one can safely express strong emotions like anger, sorrow, or frustration that might otherwise find a release in violence, or, just as bad, cause one to seek the numbing relief of drugs.
I’m continually stunned and deeply concerned when I hear groups of school children trying to sing something as simple as “Happy Birthday” and they are unable to match pitch. Many recent school children’s performances that I have observed sounded like a gray wash of tone-deaf warbling. Not the children’s fault.
Increasingly, people’s experience with music is passive. We delegate our musical expression to professionals. Music cannot be learned without both listening and playing. We need to teach our children to sing their own songs and play their own instruments, not just listen to their iPods. Do we really want our children’s musical experience to be limited to the mainstream commercial music that is blared at them continually? They deserve and are fully capable of learning to express themselves in the more subtle and profound ways of traditional and classical music.
As I am now 62, I have become concerned about keeping my mental faculties intact and recently acquired, from National Public Radio, a program I can do at home called ‘Brain Fitness.’ It was developed by Michael Merzenich, a leading researcher on neuroplasticity, which is how our brains can change and adapt to meet new challenges like stroke, head trauma or old age. When I opened up the program on my laptop, I was very surprised to discover that hours and hours and hours of the exercises were based on one’s ability to distinguish pitch. It turns out that this ability has a great deal to do with how our brains process and store information. Do you know a way of putting in sequence 26 things and remembering them? Well, the alphabet has 26 letters and we all learned it the same way: (sing) A-B-C-D-E-F-G . . . I can still remember a bit of a grammar lesson the nuns at Saints Peter and Paul School drilled into my head by using the tune of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike.’ ‘First person refers to the speaker you see. For personal pronouns use I, mine and me.’
For thousands of years human history was passed down the generations using music as a way to remember long sagas before they could be written down. In these modern times, we tend to think of music as an entertainment or something that helps a troop of soldiers to step out smartly in a parade. Music is not just entertainment. Music has a profound biological resonance and it is an essential component of nearly every human endeavor. Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist, wrote a book called “Awakenings” in which he describes his patients whose brains were severely damaged by Parkinson’s disease. These patients were unable to walk, but when music was played they were able to get up and dance across the floor. Music has an alternate set of neurological pathways through our bodies and our brains.
Music programs have a very discernable positive effect on our children’s education. A recent survey by Harris Interactive of 450 randomly selected high schools revealed that students who are enrolled in a music program have a 90.2 percent graduation rate, while those who take no music classes have a 72.9 percent graduation rate. Christopher Johnson, professor of music education and associate dean of the School of Fine Arts at Kansas University, conducted a landmark study comparing test scores of students in a music program with students who had no music. Professor Johnson later testified before Congress, presenting some eye-opening data: Students of all regions and socio-economic backgrounds who studied music scored significantly higher on math and English tests than students who did not study music.
Recently I have been invited to sing at several schools. I agreed on the condition that I not sing from the stage to a large school assembly but rather in the classrooms of first- and second-graders so that they could hear un-amplified music in a more natural setting the way I experience it in my living room. I know that many of these children don’t have families that play music at home. In fact, most of them have had no experience with anything but recorded music. They think music comes out of their television or computer screens, not out of people’s hands and mouths. After they got over the shock of discovering that we didn’t have volume knobs on our heads or on our acoustic guitars, they settled down and listened to our selection of folk songs from the early part of the 20th century. These were not children’s songs. They were songs about building the railroad, exploring unknown territory and the loneliness of being a stranger in a new land. Afterward, we talked about the stories in the songs and how they might apply to their lives.
There are some excellent programs that promote live performances in the schools and they deserve to be supported. Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist who performed recently at President Obama’s inauguration, has volunteered his time to perform in schools with the help of an organization called Young Audiences.
In my hometown of Tucson, an organization called OMA (Opening Minds to the Arts) has made a tremendous impact in helping children of many different cultures and languages to assimilate into the Tucson Unified School District. Children of African refugees, Native Americans and Mexican immigrants, all have benefited from learning music, the universal language, as they struggle to become proficient in English and excel in their other subjects. In only the first year the program was implemented, the dramatic rise in test scores in schools being served by OMA surprised teachers and researchers alike.
Currently, I am acting as the artistic director of the Mexican Heritage Foundation in San Jose, California. We have a mariachi program that has functioned successfully in the schools since 1992 and an exciting math and music program in development.
And finally, as you may know, there is a conductor of staggering talent who has been hailed as the next Leonard Bernstein. His name is Gustavo Dudamel and he has toured the United States and Europe with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra to ecstatic reviews. He joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic as their music director in the fall. Perhaps you have seen him featured on “60 Minutes” or in other national or international press. Here’s what matters to us today: This young conductor has a passion for music education because he knows its true power to alter the course of young lives. He was brought up in Venezuela in the extraordinary music education system that I mentioned earlier called El Sistema. It has existed for 35 years and now reaches over 250,000 students and their families. A driving force in Dudamel’s life is to transform communities through participation in music. He is leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s YOLA or Youth Orchestra L.A. project, which is designed to serve children who have the most need and the fewest resources. Access to quality music education should not be only for those who can afford it, The benefits are too great. Today, children ages 7-16 in the urban core of Los Angeles receive free instruments, after-school music instruction and orchestra experience. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has already touched the lives of hundreds of children and their families and has plans to reach more. Imagine what can be accomplished if we support the arts, engage “at risk” youth and help them succeed in school and in their lives. For “underserved” families, indeed for all families, participation in music and the arts can help people reclaim and achieve the American Dream.