With fiddles, trumpets and guitars, Mexico's signature brand of music is well on its way to making bigger inroads in Chicago, America's 'most Mexican city'
By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune
Victor Pichardo offers students at Benito Juarez Community Academy the chance to learn mariachi music after school, but he has another, bigger, goal in mind — keeping alive a tradition that could be lost to hip-hop and rock.
Some of the youths have never picked up a fiddle or strummed a guitar, let alone blown through a trumpet. Yet after one month, Pichardo, a Grammy-nominated musician, expects them all to know how to play at least one mariachi folk song. "They start learning songs the first class," he said. "I really try to get the students to work hard. They have to want to be there because it's a challenge."
His efforts reflect the continuing evolution of mariachi music and culture in Chicago, a profile expected to rise in 2010, when the city will host a yearlong celebration to mark two significant events: the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence.
In a way, the party has already started. In late August, the National Mariachi Company from Guadalajara, Mexico, debuted in the U.S. over two nights at the Auditorium Theatre. Composed of three of Mexico's leading mariachi groups, the company performed with the Chicago Sinfonietta, a cultural cross-pollination effort to target the music to non-Hispanic audiences.
Miguel Alfaro Aranguren, board president of the Guadalajara Chamber of Commerce, said that despite having a large Hispanic population, Chicago was chosen over Houston, New York City and Los Angeles for the debut because of its wider non-Hispanic population. It is hoped, he said, that audience will embrace mariachi culture with enough enthusiasm to encourage vacationing in Guadalajara, its geographical home.
"We know they don't listen to this music in their homes (but) we think many people like this Mexican music even though they don't speak Spanish," Aranguren said. "It happens all over world. I was once in a very nice party in Paris, and it was weird to me that half of the music was Mexican music."
There is a common thread among mariachi players and classical musicians, making the collaboration more natural than it might appear, said Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Chicago Sinfonietta.
"The harmonies are very tight and there is a lot of rigor and discipline in what they are doing. A good orchestra performs under the same set of expectations," he said.
The company will return to the U.S. next year as part of a global tour with Chicago, one of three stops. But the music can be heard almost any day of the week in restaurants, banquet halls, bars, backyards, street festivals and weddings in Mexican neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards.
Restaurants such as Mi Tierra in Little Village are built around mariachis, which are identified by a group of at least eight musicians playing fiddles, trumpets, a Spanish guitar and a single singer dressed in wide-brimmed hats and the suit of a charro, a traditional horseman, or cowboy.
On a recent Saturday night at Mi Tierra, 2528 S. Kedzie Ave., mariachis appeared close to midnight, at the close of a televised soccer match, parading through the restaurant. In the dining rooms with two-story ceilings, paintings and photographs of famous mariachi bands of the past and present decorate the walls.
The respect given to the music's traditions is what makes Chicago "the most Mexican city" in the U.S., said Eduardo Rodriguez, chairman of the Mexican Civic Society, which is in its 40th year of promoting Mexican culture in Chicago. Rodriguez, who was instrumental in bringing the National Mariachi Company to Chicago, said that although Los Angeles has a larger Mexican community due to its proximity to the border, Chicago is more respectful of traditions.
"In L.A., I see mariachi bands in blue jeans and tennis shoes," he said, compared with Chicago bands that "dress well and know what they're doing. Those are things that make Chicago different. We feel more at home to express our tradition."
Still, there is room to grow. Unlike in the border states, Chicago has no major mariachi festival and there are not yet any all-female mariachi groups, a growing trend. Both are only a matter of time, said Carlos Tortolero, president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.
Events planned for next year will help to offset negative publicity Mexico suffered from the swine flue epidemic and increased drug violence along the border, he said. And it's hoped the music will lead to a renewed appreciation for the country's wider culture, he said.
"We are very outgoing people, we enjoy life and that's what mariachi music is — it's happy music," Tortolero said.
That's the lure for students to take the mariachi classes Pichardo has been teaching for 15 years. Co-founder of the Mexican folk ensemble Sones de Mexico, which received a Grammy nomination last year, Pichardo said he's seen an increased interest among students to learn the music. While most are Hispanic at the five schools where he teaches, there are white, black and Chinese students.
To promote the music to a wider audience, he has written a classical cantata he hopes will be performed by one of the city's orchestras next year. He also is working on a pilot program to incorporate mariachi music into the official music curriculum in the public schools.
Though mariachis often play for entertainment, he stresses to his students that they should approach the music as a fine art, requiring the discipline and skills of classically trained musicians.
"When a student comes to me, I say 'I want to train you to be a mariachi to be in the music halls that are the best in the world.' You will be trained also to be in taverns and restaurants. But my main focus is to give them tools to be a high class mariachi."