SUNNYSIDE — Auraria Campus—Mariachi—that exuberant celebration that is Mexico’s national music—is alive and well in Denver.
Bryant-Webster dual language school at 36th and Quivas offers mariachi lessons and performing ensembles for between 45 and 60 third- to eighth-graders each year. North High School is starting a mariachi program this fall to allow Bryant-Webster students to continue playing in high school. Some will continue playing in college in Metropolitan State University’s Mariachi program.
“We want kids to feel something to be proud of—to have a talent to share with the world,” says Pamela Liñan, principal of Bryant-Webster, who started the mariachi program in 2002. “About half of our students are native Spanish speakers, and 95 percent are Hispanic. Mariachi bridges the generations between students and older family members. It helps them remember where they came from.”
Musicology professor Lorenzo Trujillo leads Metro State’s 10-member Mariachi Los Correcaminos de MSU (Correcaminos means “roadrunner,” Metro’s mascot) and classes in mariachi. The group started as an after-school club four years ago and became a for-credit class in the music department in 2014. “For Latinos, mariachi is about their community and families,” said Trujillo, a violinist, and attorney, specializing in nonprofits, who spent his early childhood in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of NW Denver. “For the Anglos in the group, it promotes cross-cultural understanding through a common interest that ties the cultures beyond language.”
El Mariachi Juvenile de Bryant Webster has performed at the mayor’s mansion, at Little Man Ice Cream Plaza and the Corky Gonzales Library grand opening. They also perform at music conferences, including the Colorado Music Educators Conference in Colorado Springs. The 14-year old program costs between $ 15,000 and $ 30,000 each year and is self-sufficient, garnering support from fundraisers like their annual Mariachi Extravaganza at North High School that features professional mariachi performers. “We get help from the district to buy the instruments,” said Liñan. “Members of Mariachi Sol de mi Tierra [a professional Denver mariachi group] teach vihuela and trumpet and help with our outfits, which are made in Guadalajara.”
Mariachi Los Correcaminos de MSU performed last month at the El latir de México concert at Boettcher Concert Hall, sharing the stage with the Colorado Symphony for a celebration of Mexican culture. The group performed at Civic Center for this year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Trujillo said mariachi as we know it dates to the early 1900s when gatherings like weddings, baptisms, funerals and fiestas would be accompanied by mariachi music. It made its way into churches, onto movie screens and into restaurants as it pervaded popular culture.
Precursors of mariachi music began in rural Western Mexico with ensembles of rattles, drums, reed and clay flutes, and conch-shell horns. After Cortés conquered Mexico in the 16th Century, musicians adopted European instruments including violins, trumpets, guitars and harps. The Mexicans added the vihuela, a round-backed guitar that gives mariachi its distinctive rhythms; the deep-voiced guitarrón that serves as the bass of the ensemble; and a Mexican folk harp, which usually doubles the bass line. “The harp is used mostly in Texas mariachi, as is the accordion,” says Trujillo.
Mariachi songs are about love, betrayal, death and politics. “The songs express the cultural values encoding society—they are universally true for all: family, community and sharing,” said Trujillo. “The songs transcend the pettiness of life.”
Traditionally, mariachi music was passed from generation to generation and learned by ear. Now it’s written down. “Musicians learned songs by rote and kept them in their heads,” said Liñan. “Some of the music was getting lost. Now arrangements for groups are available, especially in the Southwest. They are more abundant in Texas and California, where they have more groups.”
In addition to its instrumentation, mariachi is defined by its rhythms and performance styles. “Students of mariachi learn an appreciation for its complexity,” said Trujillo. “It may sound simple, but it can be as complex as symphonic music.”
Mariachi’s rhythms come from many musical styles, including waltzes and polkas. The 6/8 rhythm of son, a folk musical style, is often heard. Ranchera is a polka rhythm with a “two” beat. Rhythms like the huapango might mix duple and triple meters to reflect the intricate steps of a dance.
“Our general music program exposes kids to many languages, cultures and styles,” said Liñan. “Along with American pop music, they get Mexican, Hebrew and African music. Our instrumental program is mariachi.”
Parents are involved at Bryant-Webster through the parents’ dance group, new last year. “Many of them have danced before, so they are excited to be part of the celebration of mariachi culture,” Liñan said. “We’ll have an assembly during Hispanic Heritage Month.”
Trujillo said some of his students have what it takes to go professional. He said there are about 14 professional mariachi groups in Colorado, including his own Lorenzo A. Trujillo and the Southwest Musicians. “The kids can get work and earn money if they’re good,” he said. “Mariachi is versatile because it’s not limited to the concert hall and groups are small, about seven to 12 players instead of 60 or 80. Mariachi bands with various skill sets play for weddings and quinceañeras, or churches, or restaurants. Some groups tour.”
About half of Trujillo’s students are music education majors who plan to teach after they graduate. Four students volunteer as mariachi teachers at Denver schools; two of them are at Bryant-Webster. “We are short of teachers in Denver who can teach mariachi,” Trujillo said. “Only about five schools here offer it. It’s important because mariachi helps keep kids in school and achieving better. It gives them a connection between school and their interests.”
“Programs have started that didn’t last,” said Liñan. “Mariachi is hard to teach if you don’t understand it.”
Trujillo hopes to grow the Metro program. “About 40 colleges nationwide teach mariachi, but degree programs are rare. I’d like to provide more teachers to advance the understanding across cultures.”
El Mariachi Juvenile de Bryant Webster will perform at the Highland Haunt, 32nd and Clay Streets, Oct. 29. For more information see www.highlandhaunt.com. Mariachi Los Correcaminos de MSU will give a concert on Dec. 3 at the King Center on the Auraria campus. For more information see their Facebook page.
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