First, a couple of corrections. In my review of Thursday night’s mariachi conference participant showcase, I failed to even mention Tucson’s Los Changuitos Feos. This was a major omission, as theirs was one of the night’s best sets.
Youth mariachis are like school athletics: You have good teams some years and have to build on others. But this year was one of the best for the Changuitos of the 20-plus years I’ve covered the conference for the Citizen. The group’s vocals were dead-on, the instrumental ensemble was impressive and the group’s sense of showmanship and style set it apart.
Also in my review of the Espectacular, I mistakenly credited Los Camperos with the beautiful performance of “El Pastor.” It was, in fact. Arturo from Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán who lofted those falsetto leaps into the stratosphere in that memorable performance. Sometimes when you’re under deadline pressure, you think you’re on a page in your notes talking about one group when there’s actually a bit of overlap. My bad, and apologies to Vargas.
Corrections out of the way, I wanted to make some observations about the Tucson International Mariachi Conference since it’s by no means certain that we’ll be around next year to do so.
I first covered the mariachi conference for the Citizen in 1988, just after Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre” came out. That first year I reviewed the show jointly with Ruben Hernandez, who covered it by himself the following year. From 1990 on I covered the conference by myself.
No single event has been more crucial to my appreciation and understanding of the heart of this community than the mariachi conference.
I was an outsider from the culture, but from the start, people in the Mexican- American community embraced me and patiently helped me to get a grip on the complexities and nuances of the mariachi and folklórico art forms. My background was in classical music, and immediately I could see that the virtuoso mariachis who appeared at the Espectacular were among the best musicians from any genre in the world. Clearly they had taken this music’s folk roots and elevated them to a level of high art, just as symphonic, chamber and operatic composers in the classical world had. Moreover, both the instrumental and vocal artistry brought to bear on this music were among the greatest anywhere in the world.
I also quickly saw that this was some of the most complex music on the planet, with rhythms superimposed upon one another in the most propulsive way. And there was a human connection to the mainstream of the culture that had all but disappeared in the classical world. High art this may be, but this music lives in the hearts and minds of the populace, who often sing along at the shows when button-pushers like “Volver, Volver” are performed. Being in the middle of all of that was so different and so “alive.”
Over two decades there were growing pains in the conference that I reported. Personality conflicts and strong differences of opinion, particularly with regard to the educational components, rocked the event from time to time. But over the years, those clashes have produced a stronger conference that remains the model for all in the mariachi world.
Tucson, too, has grown as a result of the conference, economically because of the many visitors it’s brought in, but also socially. When I started at the Citizen in 1987, few schools had mariachi programs as part of the curriculum. Today many more do, and these programs have increased student pride in their culture, helped to lower dropout rates, improved grades and resulted in many more Mexican-American students going on to college than ever before. These programs have become recruiting tools for local public schools, and in many ways have been cultural ambassadors to the community at large.
Having the mariachi conference as a focal point for all of this school activity has had a synergistic effect. Some complain that students can learn little in three days, but I say that one cannot underestimate the value of the inspiration that comes from rubbing shoulders with the greatest figures in that music and learning directly in the classroom from your heroes. On top of that, students build lasting friendships with players, singers and dancers of their age from around the U.S. and Mexico, and come to realize they are part of something greater than themselves and their local groups.
And the proof is in the student participant showcase, as well as the student offerings of the Garibaldi. Year after year, I see the level of artistry in the students steadily rise. At younger and younger ages I see top talent, inspired by kids their age and the masters of their art forms. I see kids with confidence who are unafraid to express themselves, are proud of their heritage and connected to their families and community. And I see the rise of a sophisticated audience as well that knows and understands the music and dance, and shows its appreciation like no other.
I’ve also seen changes at the highest levels of the mariachi food chain. Tucson’s own Mariachi Cobre gave Vargas, Los Camperos and many others a kick in the pants a number of years back by ratcheting up its own level of instrumental and vocal artistry. The competition is more fierce today at the top level than it once was, and yet there also has developed a more cooperative spirit at that level. All of this is directly attributable to the Tucson conference.
Words can’t describe how grateful I am to have had the chance to see all of this unfold, to write about this moment in history as it happened and to get to know some of the most wonderful people along the way. In particular, I would like to thank longtime conference emcee Jose Ronstadt, who year after year acknowledged what the Citizen has allowed me to do. I’d also like to thank Richard Carranza, who in my earliest years helped me by explaining so much of what’s important in this music, and guided me through its incredibly rich and deep literature. I’d like to thank the Carrillo and Ruiz families for their help in unraveling mariachi’s Tucson roots. Equally, I would like to thank Julie Gallego, Jose Luis Baca and Marisa Gallegos for all the help they’ve given me in coming to understand the folklórico dance that is an equal partner to the music.
Most of all, I would like to thank the musicians and dancers, young and old, who have inspired me beyond what words can convey. You are in my heart forever.
Please go online (www.tucsoncitizen.com) and check out the videos from the participant showcase and the Garibaldi performances. And know that whether the newspaper is here or not next year, I’ll be back at the conference, savoring again the music and dance that I have come to love.