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Masters of Mariachi

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

On Dia de los Muertos, it is traditional to play mariachi music at the graves of family and friends, even if they have been gone for many years.

Mariachi connects its players to generations long past and also unites current generations. It is very common for a mariachi band to be made up of many members of the same family. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán is no exception.

Jose Pepe Martinez Jr. is a vocalist and violinist in Mariachi Vargas and the son of the band’s musical director, Jose Pepe Martinez Sr.

“My maternal and paternal grandfathers were part of Mariachi Vargas in its first and second generation, then my father, now me,” Martinez Jr. said in a translated interview. “They inspired me since I was a child. I’ve been listening to mariachi my whole life. Growing up, it was all around me; I could feel it in my bones.”

Martinez Jr. began studying music at age seven, eventually attending The National Conservatory of Music of Mexico in Mexico City, where he studied voice and violin. His father invited him to be part of Mariachi Vargas in 1993. Even with Martinez Jr.’s extensive musical training and legacy with the band, his position was not guaranteed. All new members undergo a rigorous trial period of up to a year, during which their membership can be revoked. Each musician in Mariachi Vargas’ 13-member lineup proved himself to be truly a master of his craft before becoming a fixture in the ensemble.

Martinez Jr. is also passionate about helping mariachi thrive through new generations of performers. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán holds workshops for students of music, where every instrument, including vocals, is taught by an expert performer. The group further demonstrates their commitment to mentoring young artists by selecting rising stars to perform with them.

At the 2012 Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, the band named Karen Zavala, a Texas State University student, the “Best Mariachi Vocalist in the U.S..” She will be opening for Mariachi Vargas at Hill Auditorium. Zavala recalls growing up idolizing the band.

“I remember the first time I saw them in concert, my sophomore year,” Zavala said. “Everyone is talented, everyone is good at what they play and then when they sing, oh boy, it’s amazing. I’ve always looked up to them.”

“When you know you’re selected by the members, it’s an even greater honor,” Zavala said. “It’s not just any award. The members that are known as the best in the world chose you and saw something special in you. That’s the biggest prize I got.”

Muñoz noted that mariachi music and its education are more respected in the United States than in its own country of origin, but perhaps this is beginning to change. In 2012, Mariachi Vargas participated in the inauguration of a school of mariachi in Mexico.

Not content with simply being the best in their genre, Mariachi Vargas continues to innovate, expanding the boundaries of mariachi music into new territory. In 2010, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned Jose Pepe Martinez Sr. to create the world’s first mariachi opera. The production, “To Cross the Face of the Moon,” centers on an elderly Mexican-American immigrant who reveals to his children on his deathbed that he left behind a family in Mexico. His dying wish is to be reunited with them. Mariachi Vargas shared the stage with members of the Houston Grand Opera, performing their original songs.

As unlikely as it seems, Muñoz believes that there is a lot of crossover between opera and mariachi. Many young people who study mariachi also study opera, she said.

“When you come to the show, you’ll think this is Spanish opera,” Muñoz said. “They play traditional mariachi music, but it’s heavily influenced by operatic and symphonic styles.”

Truly Render, press and marketing manager for UMS said the 2010 Mariachi Vargas show was her first concert with the UMS and also one of the best she’s ever seen.