The mariachi band–perhaps half a dozen violins, a few trumpets, several guitars of different sizes and names, and often a harp or some other instrument–is a common enough representation of Mexican culture to be called a stereotype. It’s always worth looking into things for which we’ve forgotten the reasons and origins, and the visit to town by the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, coming to Hill Auditorium on November 5, offers an opportunity to understand something of this music that tourists and Mexicans alike take as an icon of Mexico–and to hear it done about as elaborately as it can be.
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan is the oldest existing mariachi band, created in 1897 by one Don Gaspar Vargas, and arguably the best; they were long billed, at any rate, as “El mejor mariachi del mundo” by the RCA label’s Mexican branch. They didn’t create the individual components of the mariachi sound–the shimmering, vibrato-heavy lines of the group of violins, the accelerating musical phrases, the subtle balance of violins and trumpets in a small ensemble, the grito mexicano or Mexican yell–but they brought them together in the form in which they’re known today.
Ruben Fuentes joined the band in 1944 and is still active as an arranger. Fuentes wrote a lot of the music that Mariachi Vargas plays in concert, music that also is heard wherever Mexican food is served–the peppy and shout-filled “La culebra,” the impressionistic and cinematic “Mi Ciudad,” and the tropical-flavored “La Bikina,” a piece that took mariachi out of the realm of Mexican regional music and made it a style of international ambitions. Then he went further. Mariachi Vargas videos online, many of which have logged hundreds of thousands of views, show an extravaganza with singers, dancers, and medleys of classical melodies that turn the group into a miniature symphony orchestra.
The Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan concert comes in the midst of a fall season that may be the most diverse the University Musical Society has ever mounted. November alone brings, along with major classical artists, a revival of the internationally significant avant-garde ONCE festival of the 1960s, Lebanese pop from vocalist Assi El Helani, and the rock-theater fusion of Stew & The Negro Problem (which UMS is taking to the space left vacant by Leopold Brothers bar.) I don’t know of a major performing arts organization anywhere in the country that’s experimenting more vigorously.