Mariachi USA: Tradition & Innovation

Festival organizer Rodri Rodriguez aims to please as well as challenge loyal festival audience

By Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: June 18, 2001

Mariachi USA: Tradition & Innovation

Thousands of enthusiastic mariachi fans enjoying two afternoons under the Southern California sun. The finest mariachi groups in the Southwest -- trumpets blaring, guitars strumming and violins shimmering - eliciting gritos of joy and emotion. Smiling dancers, swirling and stomping in colorful, poised precision.
The Mariachi USA Festival, held annually at the Hollywood Bowl and taking place this year on Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24, is the premier musical and cultural event celebrating the magnificence of the mariachi.
Going on twelve years old the event has elevated the musical art form to new aesthetic and commercial heights. Rodri J. Rodriguez, a gutsy Latina who took a leap of faith in organizing the Festival back in 1989, is in obvious awe of her creation's success in bringing the music of the mariachi to the forefront of American consciousness. She is also well aware of the challenge she faces in wowing a very loyal audience, many whom return to the two-day event Hollywood Bowl year after year. But she's up to it.
"How do I keep the Festival fresh and new and exciting for the more than 30,000 fans that are expected to attend?" she asks herself. "How do I, as a producer striving to provide quantity and quality, both please and challenge the audience at the same time?"
Part of her strategy is to pare down the number of mariachi groups playing the Festival. Whereas in year's past, the audience was serenaded by up to six groups, the current Festival will feature four of the finest mariachi ensembles found in the Southwest: Mariachi Imperial de Mexico from Orange County, Mariachi Mujer 2000 from California, Mariachi Campanas de America from San Antonio, and Mariachi Los Arrieros from El Paso.
This year, the audience will be treated to longer sets by the mariachi groups, the result, she says, of not only her quest for the best but also of the maturing of the mariachis themselves.
"The mariachis that will perform are seasoned and educated musicians, with members who both read and write music," she says. "By giving the mariachis more time to play and connect with the audience, it is an opportunity for them to give more of themselves as musicians. The show will not be any less. In fact, it will be the best music that we ever have had!"
"I also challenged the mariachis to learn new music," she adds. "For instance, Mariachi Los Arrieros will be performing a version of "A puro dolor" by the contemporary pop group Son By Four. But, I also encourage them to look back at the music of the Golden Age of Mexican movies of the 1930's and 1940's, to learn the songs of Lucha Reyes, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. That way we keep the old music alive."
Also new at this year's festival, in what Rodriguez hopes will become a new tradition, is "El baile de los viejitos", a production number that will feature male dancers dressed and masked as little old ladies, who will bring the older crowd up on stage in an amusing form of audience participation.
"Along with the audience sing along of two of mariachi's greatest hits, 'Volver, volver' and 'El rey', I think this will be one of the highlights of the Festival," she asserts.
One tradition that Rodriguez intends to carry to this year's Festival is the introduction of new mariachi singing talent. In Festivals past, the Hollywood Bowl stage has been graced by the likes of Nydia Rojas, who has gone on the great success on stage and in the recording studio.
"We have a history of introducing new talent," says Rodriguez. "And this year is no exception, with the likes of Melinda Salcido from Fresno. She's young, has incredible vocal strength, and great energy. She's will knock the audience's socks off!"The Festival will also feature as soloist returning vocalists Carlos Marquez from Monterey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
Production numbers that have been of the Festival's history will also be back on the Hollywood Bowl stage, including the Mariachi USA Ballet and the Mariachi USA Symphony. Closing the show will be the awe-inspiring, spectacular fireworks show by Pyrospectaculars.
One of the great indications of the Festival's ongoing success is the place it has taken among many mariachi aficionados throughout the Southland and beyond. "A lot of people have made the Mariachi USA Festival a family tradition, coming back year after year, in groups of forty and fifty," she says. "One group of over 100 fans - friends and family of Olga Moreno Tapia and Rudy Tapia - celebrate their birthday at Mariachi USA every year!"
Not that she hasn't noticed more and more new faces attending the event: "At the Hollywood Bowl, the audience seems to be getting younger," she marvels. "I see teenagers who are out on dates recognizing and enjoying the music. This year, we have a group of Cubans coming in from Miami who saw our mariachi show on Pay Per View."
"If anything, Mariachi USA is keeping the music alive. I carry it in my blood. It's always alive, fresh, and passionate," she exclaims. "For me, mariachi is a staple in my life, like rice and beans. As for success of the Festival, I set the standard high, and the audience expects no less."

About Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.:
Mariachi USA Festival Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24 Hollywood Bowl

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