From Napa, greater San Diego, Washington state and beyond, dozens of young musicians gathered in Napa on Saturday – all of them united in a shared embrace of the trumpets, vihuelas and guitarrons of mariachi music.
Napa Valley College played host to its inaugural Viva Mariachi festival, an occasion for aspiring performers to refine their playing and singing skills by day before showing off their abilities in an evening concert expected to draw more than 1,000 spectators.
The debut of Viva Mariachi is an effort to showcase not only the musical genre but the artistic skills of the community – and to encourage others to express their talents as well, according to Oscar De Haro, NVC’s vice president of student affairs, who organized Saturday’s event.
“The key is that it’s a mariachi festival, but that’s just the outcome,” he said. “The intent is to bring these youth together to show to our community the talent and abilities our youth have.
“A violin is a violin, a guitar is a guitar, and a trumpet is a trumpet. Once you know music, you can transfer those skills into mariachi.”
Viva Mariachi attracted 93 visiting musicians ranging in age from 10 to 66, but the focus of the festival was on the gathering of young performers keeping alive a Mexican musical tradition filled with brass, strings and soulful vocals that also has made steady inroads in the U.S.
Among those leading that expansion are instructors like Ramon Rivera and Jeff Nevin, who brought student ensembles to the Napa Valley from opposite directions – Rivera from Wenatchee High School in Washington, home base of Mariachi Huenachi; and Nevin from Southwestern College’s Mariachi Garibaldi in Chula Vista, less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.
Since moving to Wenatchee in 2005 from his native Ventura County, Rivera has led the mariachi program at his adoptive home’s school district, teaching more than 300 students across 14 classes.
“It’s not just in California; it’s places like Kansas and Tennessee, too,” he said. “People are looking for mariachi teachers; they call me and say ‘Do you know somebody, do you know somebody?’”
Hours before showtime, the mariachis-in-training broke up into workshops grouped by instruments: violinists in one room, armonia and guitarron players in a dance studio, trumpeters in the student center. With a handful of brass players circling him, Rivera meticulously worked out the kinks in their playing and singing, from gilding their Spanish-language R’s to finishing their parts in strong staccato.
“You don’t want to go ‘la-la,’ you want to go ‘TA-TA, ta-ta!’” Rivera instructed a handful of brass players, urging them to firmly dot, with emphasis, the final two chords of “La Feria de las Flores.”
“You know how many mariachi songs end this way? Thousands,” he said. “You can play the whole song perfectly but people remember the beginning and the end. That’s the difference between good mariachi and bad mariachi.”
“You have to pay attention to every detail, a lot of details most people miss,” said 14-year-old trumpeter Sindy Cancino, who had come to the Napa festival from Oxnard with her 18-year-old sister Nancy, a violinist. “Sometimes you run out of breath but you have to have a hold of your breath – you almost have to remember how to breathe!”
Joining the workshop were some Bay Area transplants who had found their way into mariachi music at UC Berkeley, where they joined the student-run Mariachi Luz de Oro. “I hadn’t played much before, but they needed a trumpet and I loved the music,” said Carl Plant, a Florida native and member of the Berkeley ensemble. “It’s so much fun to play music that’s so expressive.”
The genre also has become the life work of Nevin, a non-Mexican who joined his first mariachi band as a 15-year-old trumpeter in Tucson, Arizona and went on to found the world’s first mariachi degree program in 2004 at Southwestern, a community college south of San Diego.
Over the years, Nevin has seen the musical form become a bridge to Latino community and within it, especially in families where language and cultural differences otherwise separate elders from youngsters.
“There are Mexican-American families yearning for some connection,” he said during a break in the morning classes. “By putting mariachi into the public schools, it makes an immediate connection to their culture.”
In looking back at the success of his own mariachi program, Rivera spoke not only of freeing the musical impulses of students but of using the necessities of practice, hard work and professionalism as a springboard to greater things in life.
“It’s a snowball effect – you see the pride in the kids, the way they act, the way they work, the way they like going to school,” he said. “Imagine if these kids weren’t in that program. Where would they be? How would they succeed?”