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Mariachi Music Tradition

By Jose B. Rivera

Picture of Mariachi Band

Story/Article Written and submitted by Jennifer Weil

The five-man mariachi band wearing mustard-colored trajes de charro strolled down a tree-lined path in Central Park. The sound of two trumpets filled the air, and the vihuela, the guitarron and the violin soon joined in. The beat was magnetic, drawing a crowd of parents and young children.

“It makes me feel like I’m in Mexico right now,” 10-year-old Stephanie Olivares said during Mariachi Real de Mexico’s performance at a children’s festival in the park in April.

The mariachi tradition, which has become a symbol of Mexican music and culture, originated in the western state of Jalisco. In modern form, a mariachi band consists of trumpets; violins; guitar; vihuela, a small five-stringed guitar-like instrument with a rounded back, which makes a percussive sound; and guitarron, a six-string larger verison of the vihuela, which provides the bass line.

“It’s part of the culture,” said Ramon Ponce Jr., a part-time guitarron player with Mariachi Real de Mexico, his father’s band. “It’s part of who we are. Once you hear mariachi music, especially outside of Mexico, it tends to be emotional. People sometimes even cry. Mariachi music is not only festive, happy music, it’s also sentimental and very romantic. A lot of people remember a lot of things from their past and from their childhood.”

While growing up in the Mexican city of Puebla, Ponce learned to play the guitarron and to sing mariachi songs from his father, Ramon. When the family moved to New York City in the late 1980s, Ponce and his father noticed that young Mexicans did not have the same musical opportunities.

“In Mexico, parents teach their children,” Ponce, 26, said. “Because there are a lot of mariachi musicians, there was no need for school. A lot of people here, they want to learn, but there’s no school for kids to learn.”

Although mariachi schools have been established in California, Colorado, Texas and Washington, there are none in the Northeast. That is about to change.

Last November, the Ponces helped form the Mariachi Association of New York, uniting 12 mariachi bands to make joint appearances and establish a mariachi school. In June, the Mariachi Academy of New York will begin accepting applications from children ages 9 to 15 and holding auditions for the 50 openings. The first five-month semester will begin in July at 1775 Third Ave. at 98th Street in East Harlem. A second semester is planned for January.

“The school will teach the younger generations about our music, our culture,” said Ponce, who also studies music at Queens College. “Maybe some of them are not going to be professional mariachi musicians, but they will appreciate our music, our culture even more. A lot of them want to learn, and by opening this school, this will be a chance to learn the music and perform it.”

The number of Mexicans living in New York City has tripled since 1990, to 186,872 from 61,722, according to the 2000 Census. Not suprisingly, Ponce said, the demand for mariachi musicians is growing.

“We have a shortage of musicians, especially during the holidays,” he said. “We get a lot of calls, and sometimes people aren’t able to get a mariachi band because there are not that many musicians. We need more musicians and the school is going to be a way to do that.”

To help start the school, the mariachi association has worked with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, a Manhattan-based group that develops performance and educational programs for the ethnic groups in the region.

“We help them get the grants, get it off the ground, and then they take it on,” said Cathy Ragland, an enthnomusicologist, who directs the center’s Mexican community culture initiative. “Part of the work now is really trying to get them on good footing and get them with funders that will stick with them.”

The mariachi association has received promotional help from the Mexican Cultural Institute, classroom space from the Union Settlement Association and a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ragland said money was still needed to buy instruments, uniforms and music stands. The organizers hope to offer the classes for free, but a small fee may be necessary.

“It is going to be a small number, in a small space, but that is the idea: to be able to grow in the future,” said Ponce, who will be the school’s artistic director and teach the guitarron.

Among the five teachers will be Ponce’s father, who will give trumpet lessons. Yolonda Leticia, a mariachi singer for more than 30 years, will teach the students how to sing traditional mariachi songs like “El Rey,” “Besame Mucho” and “Si Nos Dejan.” Violin, guitar and vihuela will also be taught.

“The mariachi music is very versatile,” Ragland said. “It speaks to Mexican identity. It speaks to modernity, the urban experience, and it speaks to the experience of traveling from one place to another.”

For the past 10 years, Mariachi Real has traveled around the New York area. The band plays at weddings, birthdays, christenings and festivals, and has performed at concerts with Mexican singers like Ana Gabriel and Marco Antonio Solis and Venezuela’s Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodriguez. Mariachi Real can also be heard on a CD, “Masterpiece/Obra Maestra: Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri,” which won a Grammy in 2000.

And not only Mexicans hire mariachi bands.

“Colombians, Puerto Ricans, all kinds of people; Ecuadoreans, even Chinese people,” said Ponce’s brother Miguel, who is also a member of the band. “All people like it.”

Even the rock musician Bruce Springsteen has invited Mariachi Real to play for his birthday.

“If you are happy, if you are down, if you are sad, if you want to be romantic, there is going to be a song for that special moment,” Ponce said. “I think that’s why people like mariachi music a lot.”

Information about the Mariachi Academy is available by calling (212) 571-1555.

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