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Masters of Mariachi

Courtesy of Cynthia Muñoz

By Julia Kline, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 24, 2013

Soaring, symphonic instrumentals punctuated by some of the world’s most talented, classically trained vocalists fill a concert hall. This isn’t the prototypical image of a mariachi performance, but it’s what Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán has been delivering for 115 years, earning it the title, “The Best Mariachi Band in the World.” On Jan. 27, University Musical Society will present Mariachi Vargas at Hill Auditorium, two years after an incredibly popular 2010 performance in Ann Arbor.

Mariachi Vargas was born in 1897 in the small city of Tecalitlán, which is nestled in Southern Jalisco. It was one of the first ensembles playing what is recognized as modern mariachi and has evolved through five generations. Mariachi music was initially a type of Mexican folk music, dating back to the 1860s. Mariachi Vargas is credited for advancing mariachi as an art form and for setting the standard for all other bands in the genre. Famed Mexican composer Rubén Fuentes has been responsible for the band’s artistic direction since the 1950s.

Mariachi Vargas was originally composed of four elements: a guitar, two violins and a harp. Fuentes added a bass guitar, or a guitarrón, and a trumpet, creating a stronger sound. This led former Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos to first coin the phrase, “El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo” in the band’s third generation. Two generations later, Mariachi Vargas is still recognized as one of the greatest mariachi bands in existence.

Cynthia Muñoz represents Mariachi Vargas in the United States, but her story with the band began when she was a middle-school student, completely infatuated with mariachi music. In 1979, Muñoz participated in a San Antonio mariachi festival, the first of its kind, headlined by Mariachi Vargas. Muñoz said she fell in love with the band and attended the festival habitually for the next five years.

What followed was a 10-year hiatus when no mariachi festivals were held in San Antonio. During that time, Muñoz studied advertising, specializing in Hispanic markets and eventually founded her own company, Muñoz Public Relations, which she used to resurrect the idea of a festival headlined by Mariachi Vargas. She has been producing the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio for 18 years and has also started mariachi festivals in other parts of Texas.

“Every time I produce a concert of theirs or I see one of their shows, I feel that same level of excitement that I did when I was 13 years old,” Muñoz said. “Their music is just exhilarating. It brings out this feeling of incredible pride for the culture.”

Mariachi music permeates many facets of Hispanic culture. Mariachi bands perform during La Posada, a Christmas festival that reenacts Mary and Joseph searching for lodging. Bands and revelers go house to house and play traditional holiday songs. It is also popular for mariachi bands to serenade mothers on the eve of Mother’s Day. The ballad “Oh Madre Querida” — or “Oh Beloved Mother” — is often used to express adoration for a mother.

Muñoz explained that mariachi music is so popular among young people in south Texas because it offers them a rare chance to connect with their heritage. Mariachi music has been around for many generations — some of the songs played by modern ensembles date back 100 years — which may explain why it attracts such a wide following.

“It’s quite common here in San Antonio to see someone attend a concert with both their parents and their kids,” Muñoz said. “So many of the songs are about the love of Mexico; it’s folklore music. They also teach the kids about cultural traditions.”

Muñoz said she spent her entire childhood playing at weddings, quinceañeras and funerals. Yes, mariachi bands are even present at somber occasions like funerals, which shatters the stereotype of a chipper, vapid band playing at a Mexican restaurant. There is a set of mariachi songs meant to help people mourn loved ones who have died.