Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mariachi Rawk

Ah!.... Los Mariachis!, you either love them or hate them. To some, this is the music that plays in heaven, and for others it's a cacophony of noise. The style has its roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco, originally it was played only with string instruments. The name "Mariachi" is believed to be a corruption of the French word "mariage" or marriage. This makes sense, seeing how the music was commonly played at weddings.

There is however, a longstanding dispute concerning the origins of the name. Some scholars argue that it dates back to the time before the arrival of the Spaniards. In fact, the name could be of indigenous origin...  for those who want to argue that point (I for one, don't feel the need)  The music is based on instruments introduced by the Spanish, which were then modified both in shape and tuning to suit the taste of the locals.

Mariachi has always been grounded in the European musical traditions (opera, waltzes, polkas) But,  as the style migrated into the urban centers of Guadalajara and Mexico City, it took on its now familiar sound and appearance. Trumpets were added and the vocalists adapted  romantic (bolero) or falsetto (huapango) vocal styles. Normally the singers were unamplified, so projecting over the music was vital.

The musicians also adopted the traditional charro costume of the "charreada" (an event similar to rodeo) a style of dress native to Jalisco. Following the Mexican Revolution, Mariachi spread out across Mexico as waves of National pride swept the nation. Mariachi was promoted as a symbol of Mexican identity, becoming the common thread that helped to heal a nation still reeling from years of bloody civil war. 

In the 1940s & 50s, Mariachi (or Ranchera) films dominated the  "Golden Age" of Mexican cinema. Meanwhile, the music took over Mexican radio, spurred on by the vocal talents of  Pedro Infante, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Javier Solis, Jorge Negrete, Lola Beltran & Lucha Villa. The integration of women into the genre added a new and dynamic dimension and they are now an integral part of Mariachi music at every level.  

Mash-ups are popular right now, this trendy style of mixing is accomplished by weaving or working two separate songs into one. It's only natural that this would only lead to more experimentation on the part of producers and musicians. For instance, what would happen if you took the dog eared pop ballads of The Fab Four and mashed 'em up with Mexican Mariachi music?.....  put your imagination to rest,  for there's a musical group in Albuquerque that is doing just that. 

The Mariachi Mystery Tour is the brainchild of Albuquerque musician, Lorenzo Martinez. For the last twenty years Lorenzo and his brother Roberto Jr. have been members (along with their father, Roberto Sr.) of Los Reyes de Albuquerque, a keystone mariachi group on the Duke City Hispanic music scene. Lorenzo is also a lifetime fan of The Beatles, as is Roberto Jr. With this in mind, the combination of Mersey & Mariachi doesn't seem all that farfetched.

Through the efforts of these two accomplished musicians it really does work, without sounding forced or trite. The two types of music complement each other, George Martin's original string and brass arrangements do translate well into the Mariachi idiom. It also helps that Roberto Martinez Jr. has the vocals down pat (with a hint of Brit accent) and he actually resembles Paul McCartney (complete with Revolver-era Beatles haircut) “Both musical styles, Beatles and mariachi, are part of my heart and soul.” Says Roberto Jr.

In an interview on Public Radio International’s The World, (August 12, 2011)  Roberto Martinez Jr. spoke with reporter Betto Arcos, about the concept behind The Mariachi Mystery Tour.

"I love singing Beatles songs, its kinda part of my DNA and I love Mariachi"

"My brother (Lorenzo) got a good little mariachi group together and we started recording in a tiny little studio in SW Albuquerque.... we did something like eight or ten songs"

"So, some songs like 'And I Love Her' for example, are very easy to do in a bolero, mariachi style...  so yes, some of the tunes really lend themselves in one way and yes there are challenges

"We do 'Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' and that one you just kinda gotta go for it and it drive home, but with Mariachi instruments, in a Mariachi flavor"

Those  Albuquerque recording sessions resulted in the homespun album "Mariachi Mystery Tour" released in 2010 and available on Amazon, CD Baby and elsewhere. CD Baby declares it to be "a tour-de-force artistic and cultural collision, takes a trip up the Mersey and down the Thames, all the while staying close to the banks of the Rio Grande" And that is why the writers at CD Baby get paid the big bucks, that's a mouthful and it's also right on the money. 

The Mariachi Mystery Tour is the peerless blending of two very distinct styles of music and culture into one seamless and entertaining celebration of pop music and Mexican ranchera. And, let's not leave Lorenzo Martinez, The Mariachi Mystery Tour founder and musical director out of this. Roberto being the front man gets the attention, but it's Lorenzo who's paying attention to all the details that go into making this a successful musical venture.

How did all this start?.... my best guess would be that Atlanta based Mariachi Cabos got things rolling with their tongue in cheek rendition of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (500,000 views on YouTube and counting) It's a tawdry version, the accents and the enthusiasm collide with one's memory of the original. (teecher! leave los kids alone) Recorded at La Fogata in Chapin, S.C. Mariachi Cabos is on display in their native element: a busy restaurant/bar, entertaining diners in the time honored north of the border mariachi style.

The informal setting results in  cringe worthy vocals (unamplified in true mariachi fashion) and poorly tuned instruments.  Mariachi Cabos has several videos up on YouTube (none as sensational as "The Wall), they also cover The Beatles (badly), War, Santana, Charlie Daniels (their version of Devil Went Down to Georgia is hilarious)and the portly singer moonwalks during their cover of "Beat it"  These guys play it loose as a goose, their audience is liquored up, content and feeling no pain or malice.

With music ever evolving, you are certain to see and hear some of the best songs of all time being remade. Sometimes (though rarely), the remakes are as good, or even better than the originals. The Mariachi Mystery Tour plays it straight, almost reverent in their approach.  Mariachi Cabos, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, they are The Coasters, to the Mariachi Mystery Tour's Drifters. Though, it turns out they're both just part of a larger trend that's catching on both in the U.S. and Mexico.

Mariachi Rock-o, takes a different approach, the producers (Alejandro Perez & Fernando Chavez) want to build a new wave of Mariachi music that is a combination of popular rock and alternative songs played by a traditional mariachi. To this end, they recruited various talented rock vocalists from a wide range of Mexican rock bands to accompany the mariachis. 

This includes, Chemín Santillánes (Plástiko), Memo Andrés (Disforia) , Tommy Martz, Ugo Rodríguez (Azul Violeta, Yoyo Breakers, José Fors's Frankenstein), Sexilia, José Manuel Aguilera (La Barranca), Juan Son, (Porter), Henry Renau (Afro Brothers), Paola Vergara, Fernando Moreno, Fabián de loza, Leonardo de Lozanne (Fobia, Los Concorde)Paco Aguayo (Seamus) Top notch groups like, Mariachi Vargas, Internacional Sol de America, Gallos de Mexico, Mariachi Garibaldi, Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan join in the fray.

The two disc album, "Mariachi Rock-o" (subtitled El Sonido de Jalisco I-II) was released in 2011 (recorded in Los Angeles, Ca., Guadalajara and Mexico City) and features songs by Coldplay, Radiohead, The Eagles, Oasis, The Killers,  to name a few. The producers don't just limit themselves to covering English language rock music, songs from Spain's Mano Negra and Enrique Bunbury are also dealt with swiftly and efficiently. It's a serious effort, not meant as a novelty. The goal of the project is to broaden horizons and change perspectives.

It succeeds at that, thanks to the inventive  arrangements of Pepe Martinez, Alfonso Escobar, Juan Hernandez and Jeff Nevins. Who don't just mimic the originals, but rather allow the vocalist and the mariachi  accompaniment to transform and shift the music to their style. It doesn't always work, their plodding version of Oasis' "Wonderwall" stumbles about and Radiohead's "No Surprises" is grounded by the singer's shaky command of English.  But!.... when it does work, the results are sweet (The Killers, Mano Negra, Annie Lennox)

Just like all those "rock-ala-bluegrass" albums that have proliferated over the past several years, "rock en estilo de mariachi" is also trending.  Mariachillout is the perfect example, this anonymous mariachi group has released a series of albums in which they interpet the music of Queen, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Bee Gees.  They're all quite good, except for one glaring omission.... vocals! Their expert renditions of these classic tunes screams out for some vocalization.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" without the "Mama Mia, Mama Mia... let me go!" is just crass and pointless.  Mariachillout is nothing more than an updated version of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (Alpert is the only recording artist to hit #1 on the US charts both as an instrumentalist and as a vocalist) Mariachillout are the mute, bastard children of Esquivel and Lucha Villa, plying south of the border lounge music for trendy hipster lounge lizards.

Is America ready for mariachi rock? Joe "Fucking" Arpaio be damned!  I think we are. Although it's in vogue to hate Mexicans at the moment, you know that we're as much a part of the USA as the Irish. As Chingo Bling would say, "you can't deport us all, culeros!"  So what if we speak Spanish with an English accent, get over it. Just sit back, put some hot sauce on that burrito, slap some Trini Lopez on the turntable and tune in the telly to Jose Jimenez, welcome to America...  the home of mariachi.