Citizen Staff Writer
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