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Mariachis celebrate anniversary with festive concert

March 25, 2010

During the 1984-1985 ASU school year, Richard Haefer, associate professor of ethnomusicology, was fresh from a sabbatical in Mexico.

He had enjoyed the spicy, emotional music of the various ensembles he heard south of the border, and started thinking about the ASU music curriculum.

“We don’t have any non-Western European performance ensembles,” he said to himself. “I thought about starting a norteño group (a northern Mexico country band-type ensemble).”

But fate intervened in the form of Katherine (Kitty) Lopez, who was a music student at the time.

“She had been playing norteño and salsa musics for several years and had just recently heard some mariachi recordings with flute, which is her instrument.

“She came to me and said: ‘We should start a mariachi,’” Haefer said. “So we started a mariachi. The first semester we asked Mariachi Continental Azteca to help us, then we decided to go it on our own.”

Today, the ASU Mariachi program fields two ensembles – Mariachi ASU (for students), and Mariachi Diablos del Sol for both ASU students and community members.

The two groups will celebrate the 25th anniversary of mariachi at ASU with a festive free concert from 7 to 10:30 p.m., April 12, in the Fine Arts Plaza on ASU’s Tempe campus (located between the School of Music and Nelson Fine Arts Center).

During the evening, both of ASU’s mariachis will perform, as will Mariachi Azteca de Oro (formerly Mariachi Continental Azteca), Mariachi Viva (Mesa’s youth mariachi) and Mariachi Pasión, an all-female mariachi, most of whose members have played with Mariachi ASU in the past.

Special guests will be Ralph Ruelas of El voz de Oro; ASU professor of clarinet Jana Starling; and dancers from the Herberger Institute School of Dance.

The grand climax of the evening will be the invitation for all former members of Mariachi ASU and Mariachi Diablos del Sol to come forward and join the music, Haefer said. “There are about 200 mariachi alumni now.”

Mariachi music had its beginning more than 100 years ago in the state sof Jalisco and Michoacán, Mexico, but its history has not been well documented. No one knows for certain where the name came from, and several theories are debated.

But the one thing that is certain about mariachi music is its emotional pull.

The songs are about love, romance, death, politics, revolutionary heroes, and life in Mexico.

“It’s a very festive and happy music,” said James Hutchins of Mesa, a violinist in this year’s Mariachi ASU.

Luis Herrera, another violinist from Mesa, said mariachi music has “a lot of feeling to it. You get to be more creative with it. It’s different from classical music.”

DMA student Sonja Branch, who is a percussionist, learned to play the guiterrón more than five years ago, and loves strumming and plucking the large guitar-like instrument she holds on her lap. “Mariachi is fun to play,” she said.

Violinist Karine Soto, a nursing major from Nogales, said she feels right at home in the mariachi ensemble. “It’s what my parents listened to,” she explained.

ASU’s mariachi groups have performed at the biggest mariachi festivals and conferences in the Southwest, and have toured northern Mexico three times.

Haefer has stored up many memories from those trips, and still laughs about some of the funny things that happened on them.

One year, in Alamos, Sonora, Mariachi Diablos del Sol was scheduled to play a mariachi mass at a Catholic church in the town.

“The priest said, ‘You can’t come in here,” Haefer said.

Turns out that the priest objected to the “Diablos” in the ensemble’s name – the devil was not allowed in his church.

“The priest changed his mind, however, after we told him we played for Pope John Paul II when he was in Tempe.

“And we changed our name, temporarily, to Mariachi los Angeles del Sol.”