The Magic of Mariachi
Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Linda Stell ’59 remembers the party 52 years ago when she became part of history. Stell had pulled out some songbooks that she had brought back from visiting her aunt and uncle in Mexico. UCLA music graduate student Donn Borcherdt ’55 turned to Stell and told her: “I’m thinking of starting a mariachi group. I want you to be our singer.” Neither they nor the other members of Mariachi Uclatlán, as the group was first called, knew that their newborn group would change mariachi forever, taking the music to places it had never been heard before and elevating the traditional genre to heights it otherwise never would have reached.
“UCLA definitely played a role in elevating mariachi music,” said Daniel Sheehy ’70, M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’79, an early Uclatlán member who is now the director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which preserves and promotes international folk music worldwide. “When people used to say, ‘Why bother with that low-class music?,’ you could tell them that it was being taught at a major university.”
Mark Fogelquist ’69, an early member of Uclatlán — whose musical tradition at UCLA continues to this day — wrote the first academic thesis on mariachi music, says mariachi historian Jonathan Clark, a former Uclatlán member. UCLA students have played in some of the nation’s most renowned mariachis, including the Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano and Mariachi Sol de Mexico de José Hernández.
The university also produced cultural influencers like Sheehy, who has elevated mariachi’s stature in the U.S. by producing concerts and albums, awarding grants and authoring the 2006 book, Mariachi Music in America. And in an ultimate nod to Mexican-American musicians and aficionados, the first mariachi school in Mexico didn’t choose a native to be its director. It turned to Leticia Soto ’01, M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’13, a Uclatlán player who earned her doctorate in ethnomusicology.
The Country's Music
No one knows for certain when mariachis started, but since the early 1800s, string bands comprised of members of the violin, harp and guitar families have been popular in rural Mexico, Clark explains. The epicenter of mariachi music is the central Mexican state of Jalisco, but musicians in other states and regions also contributed to the music’s early development. While the first groups played with what the Spanish brought to colonial Mexico, mariachis developed two unique instruments that are still in use today: the vihuela, a small, guitar-like instrument, and the guitarrón, a bass guitar.
Contemporary mariachi, with its flashy charro outfits and sombreros, is an urban phenomenon that evolved mainly in Mexico City. In 1905, mariachis performed for President Porfirio Díaz. In the 1920s, mariachis played in the city’s Plaza Garibaldi, a downtown square that still features strolling groups who play on the spot.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, mariachis accompanied popular ranchera (country-style) singers such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante in movies and on radio and, later, television. The festive music, with its lyrics often yearning for past loves, became Mexico’s music.
The popularity of mariachis started to wane in Mexico by the early 1960s, but it rose again in Los Angeles. Mexican immigrants brought the tradition to Southern California and found a captive audience: fellow Mexicans eager to reconnect to their native country.
Westwood Sounds Off
By then, Donn Borcherdt, a UCLA music graduate student, had caught the mariachi bug and decided to start a group at UCLA. Borcherdt and Tim Harding, then teaching in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, recruited Jesus “Don Chuy” Sanchez, a mariachi musician from Jalisco, to rehearse with them. The first formal mariachi class was taught through UCLA’s Ethnomusicology Department in 1964.
Early members of the mariachi included a Japanese temple musician and a student who played Indonesian music. UCLA’s Ethnomusicology Department had just started and its founder, Mantle Hood ’51, M.A. ’52, encouraged students to play the music they were studying.
The early mariachis visited the cantinas of East L.A. to watch Mexican groups perform and even performed for free around L.A. But early mariachi members also supported political causes such as the United Farm Workers (UFW), the prolific union led by the late Cesar Chavez.
“The UFW put us on a truck and they took us from field to field in the Delano area,” Harding says. “We played to get field workers’ attention and then organizers spoke to workers and signed them up.”
By the mid-1970s, Mark Fogelquist — a UCLA graduate student in ethnomusicology who wrote the first master’s thesis on the son jalisciense, the quintessential mariachi song — was leading Uclatlán. After Fogelquist graduated from UCLA, he took Uclatlán off campus, where the group turned professional. In 1976, Sheehy founded a student group called Mariachi Nuevo Uclatlán, which he led for two years before a graduate student named Steve Pearlman took over for the next decade.