Citizen Staff Writer
It was 1984 – the second year of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference – when 8-year-old John Contreras first attended the student workshops. It was an experience that changed his life and set him on the professional path he strides today.
Now the director of Mariachi Aztlán de Pueblo High School, Contreras came up through the ranks of Mariachi Valle, Mariachi Nuevo de Tucson and Los Changuitos Feos. He’s attended the workshops ever since 1984 – the past 15 years as one of the instructors. It was a considerably smaller event when he started going. But its impact on his life was huge.
“I fondly remember these ‘men’ that were teaching us,” Contreras says. “They spoke only Spanish and very little broken English. This would test my bilingual ability. I heard that this was Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán (I could barely pronounce Tecalitlán). They were dressed immaculately in blue blazers with tan slacks.
“From the first downbeat that Pepe Martinez gave to begin ‘El Son de La Negra,’ I was entranced. These men transformed into ‘giants’ onstage! Their presence was huge.
“This memory sticks with me and has fueled my ambition to pass along this amazing folkloric music!”
That’s always been the point of the workshops, which have been an integral part of the conference since Day One – to put the aspiring young musician side by side with the masters of the music. To have them learn from the best, see the hard work that they put in and learn the nuances of style, as well as the total palette of showmanship that rounds out the mariachi’s art.
Back when Contreras started, there were maybe six or seven guitar students, total, and three or four vihuela students, he says – a tiny number compared with the hundreds that take part in the workshops every year these days.
“The perfect combination to combine with Vargas for the workshops was the Mariachi Cobre,” Contreras says. “They were bilingual and could help us snot-nosed kids with translating both the Spanish language and most importantly the language of mariachi. This proved to be a huge connection that was beneficial to raising the musical and stylistic level of the mariachi movement in Tucson.”
The experience is no less exciting for Contreras’ students.
Celeste Padilla, now a senior at Pueblo with an eye toward studying psychology at Arizona State University next year, was 14 when she attended her first conference workshop.
“It’s fun learning all of the different music and getting to work with famous mariachis such as Los Camperos (de Nati Cano),” she says. “I think every student that’s inspired to play music or an instrument should attend because it’s a great experience. You get to meet so many different people and to broaden your ideas and broaden your skills at playing an instrument.”
Fellow senior John Salazar, 17, plays the guitarrón – the oversized bass guitar of the mariachi. For him, having the chance to learn all of the intricacies of his loping instrument from the likes of Los Camperos’ Juan Jimenez is a dream come true.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” Salazar says of Jimenez, adding that he’s learned so much from going year after year. It’s also a social thing, too, where Salazar meets with fellow guitarrón players from around Tucson and the U.S.
“I work with the other players, too,” he says. “They show me things and I show them some.” Salazar plans to follow in Contreras’ footsteps, studying music education in college, and then hopefully heading to Los Angeles to be part of Los Camperos or one of many other professional groups in the area.
For sophomore Robert Moore, 16, who has been part of the conference workshops since the age of 14, the music has helped him to connect with his culture and his generation.
“The music is so different from everything else,” he notes. “The mariachi conference was something that brought a lot of stuff into my life that probably wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been introduced to it.
“Just being able to learn the music and be with the teachers that they have there is really good. And the jam sessions that they have at the Arizona Hotel gives you even more of an experience. You meet new people and hear new songs and just get to be around the atmosphere of mariachi. It’s amazing.”
So much has changed since the conference first started. In those days, no formal mariachi programs were offered in Tucson schools. The kids attending the workshops were very much in the minority of their friends who were often on the football team or enjoying other sports. The conference gave those early students a place of belonging, just as the numerous school and independent groups do today.
Even technologically, things were different. Contreras recalls dropping the needle on his old Mariachi Vargas LPs over and over to try to understand the complex layers of rhythms in the mariachi. When he got to the conference, he could ask the players who invented that music if he’d gotten it right. It was huge.
Today’s young students are no less disciplined.
“Practice makes perfect,” Moore says. “That’s all we do is practice.”
But it pays off. Last summer, Mariachi Aztlán was asked to represent Arizona at the Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C.
“That was an experience,” Moore says. “It was amazing.”
Most recently, Aztlán took first place in the Elisa Gastellum Foundation Competition – a win that returns this student group to the stage of the mariachi conference Espectacular concert.
“Playing for Elisa’s family and being introduced to the mariachi conference as the winners of that competition is a great experience,” Moore says.
All of the players agree that the mariachi conference is a Tucson tradition that changes lives and must continue.
“It would be the worst thing in the world if this conference weren’t around,” Salazar says.
See for yourself what the conference does Thursday night at the Tucson Convention Center Arena (see box) as the workshop participants show off their talents. For this writer’s money, the participant showcase is the best public part of the whole event, showing in bold relief what motivated young musicians can do when inspired by the best in the world.
IF YOU GO
What: Tucson International Mariachi Conference Participant Showcase
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Tucson Arena, 260 S. Church Ave.
Price: $10 (general admission). Tickets for all events available through the Tucson Convention Center 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.
Where: Tucson Arena
What: The Mariachi Mass
When: 9 a.m.
Where: St. Augustine Cathedral, 192 S. Stone Ave.
What: Fiesta Garibaldi
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: DeMeester Oudoor Performing Center at Reid Park, 22nd Street and Country Club Road
Admission: $5 at the gate, free to ages 12 and younger