Thursday, 03 August 2017 13:11

Masters of Mariachi: The oldest existing mariachi band in the world is playing with Grand Rapids Symphony

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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Masters of Mariachi: The oldest existing mariachi band in the world is playing with Grand Rapids Symphony COURTESY PHOTO

It’s common to see people dancing and singing along at Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán shows. According to Julio Martinez, a harpist who has performed with the band for 22 years, it’s also not out of the ordinary for audience members to cry. The range of emotion Mariachi Vargas elicits is the result of a masterful balance between 120 years of tradition and innovation within their art form.

Mariachi Vargas — featured as a one-night-only special event as part of the Grand Rapids Pops’ D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops lineup on Saturday, Aug. 5 — promises an evening of pageantry, virtuosity and celebration of Mexican culture. The concert will be the ensemble’s first West Michigan appearance.

Widely praised as “El mejor mariachi del mundo” (the best mariachi in the world), Mariachi Vargas is the oldest existing mariachi band. Created in 1897 by Don Gaspar Vargas, the band invented modern mariachi as they fused its signature elements — vibrato-heavy violins, gritos (yells), elegant trumpets, poetic lyrics and powerful stage presence. The group performing around the world today represents its sixth generation. Every year, Mariachi Vargas performs in more than 25 U.S. cities and twice as many throughout Latin America.

Former band member Ruben Fuentes joined the group in 1944 and arranged many of the songs that Mariachi Vargas performs. Martinez notes that even with the band’s songs being performed in Spanish, they are universally loved.

“It is important to connect with audiences around the world, because we want to be around for another 100 years,” he said.

The undeniable appeal that transcends language barriers contributes to Mariachi Vargas’ longevity, but the group’s various partnerships over the years are also key. That includes collaborations within the classical world.

In 2010, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned the ensemble’s legendary leader José “Pepe” Martinez to create the world’s first mariachi opera: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”). Mariachi Vargas has since performed the opera at sold-out houses in Paris, Chicago and San Diego.

Martinez notes that even when a band is as popular as Mariachi Vargas, it’s important to adapt the art form with projects like Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.

“Many people are expecting more than what Mariachi Vargas is playing now,” he said.

The musicians of Mariachi Vargas expect that the performance alongside the Grand Rapids Pops orchestra will not only add a dynamic sound to the 14-person ensemble, but also bring the beauty of traditional Mexican culture to a new audience.

“People love our music because it transports them to the past,” Martinez said. “People feel the music because the songs come from the heart, the pueblo, the land where people were born.”

Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán
Cannonsburg Ski Area
6800 Cannonsburg Rd. NE, Belmont
Aug. 5, 8 p.m.
$19 adults, $16 students & seniors, $5 ages 2-18
grsymphony.org, (616) 454-9451

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