Mariachi Aztlán fills the stage in a grassy Tucson park, sunlight glancing off the group's navy blue, silver-studded charro-style outfits. As the 16-member ensemble launches into a particularly romantic song, local high school mariachi teacher John Contreras rocks rhythmically nearby, a small vihuela (an instrument similar to a guitar) at his side. "This song is 'El Crucifijo de Piedra,' or 'Stone Cross,'" he enthuses. "It's about lost love."
But even love's lament is upbeat in mariachi, a musical genre bursting with the passion of Mexico. "There's a feeling in the way the violins bow and the trumpets blow, in the rhythms that come out of the guitars," says Contreras, a lifelong player. "This music is incredibly joyous."
It's also powerfully rooted here, as demonstrated by the popularity of this month's Tucson International Mariachi Conference. Started in 1982, the gathering grew out of a desire by musicians and local educators to pass on their knowledge to future generations. Today the conference, held primarily at the Tucson Convention Center, is a weeklong program of workshops for students from throughout the world. It's capped with a weekend of public concerts, including the free fiesta where Mariachi Aztlán is finishing with a flourish.
During the week, downtown comes alive with the spirit of mariachi ― everywhere you look are musicians adorned in elaborate charro (cowboy-inspired) costumes: silver-buttoned pants or skirts, droopy bow ties, short embroidered jackets, and wide, elegant sombreros. Many groups are big-name bands that fly in to work with the student musicians and perform, including Mexico City's legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, originally formed in 1898 and considered the grandfather of mariachi bands.
Tucson's affection for the festive music doesn't end with this event: Mariachis are part of the local scene throughout the year. Visitors will find them in the city's Mexican restaurants, where fragrant meals are served against the spicy backdrop of live mariachi.
A Mexican original
Mariachi has come a long way from the dusty 19th-century villages of south-central Mexico, where peasant troupes in workaday clothes developed the style. Their instruments ― guitars, harps, and violins ― were rooted in Spain's theatrical orchestra tradition, but the music was evocative of the high-spirited mestizo music popular at village festivals. The earliest New World reference to mariachi is in a priest's note from 1852, and some historians believe the name refers to a type of wood used for village stages.
Rich in Mexican culture, Tucson has long had a love affair with this powerful music. In a way, the current trend of mariachi grew with the city, emerging here in the 1960s, when a group called Los Changuitos Feos ― "The Ugly Little Monkeys" ― was founded. The band's enduring popularity would eventually make Tucson a mariachi hub, and they still perform at the annual conference. Mariachi's popularity here was further bolstered by pop singer and native Tucsonan Linda Ronstadt, whose 1987 recording Canciones de Mi Padre, a collection of mariachi standards, became a national best seller.
Festival performances open with Thursday's Participant Showcase, which features students enthusiastically demonstrating their budding skills under the approving gaze of their professional mentors. It's the grand finale to the workshops, and the lineup includes as many as 14 student bands.
Friday night's Espectacular Concert is the most formal event of the series, showcasing big-name bands including California's all-female Mariachi Divas, and Mariachi los Camperos di Nati Cano, a Los Angeles group that has performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and Guadalajara's legendary Teatro de Degollado.
Finally comes Saturday's outdoor Fiesta de Garibaldi at Reid Park's DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center. Named for Mexico City's famous mariachi plaza, the Plaza Garibaldi, it's an informal gathering where neighbors chat, carne asada sizzles at food booths, and families spread folding chairs across the lawn. This event's special charm also comes from young performers such as Mariachi Aztlán, taught by John Contreras at Tucson's Pueblo Magnet High School.
On sunny days, it's easy to become absorbed in the festive atmosphere sparked by this rollicking, boisterous music. And for that, we have to thank musicians such as Contreras, who attended his first mariachi workshop as a child. "I was part of the mariachi conference since the beginning," he says. "Now it's an ongoing tradition that fills me with pride."
These days, it's also part of Tucson's rich weave. "I think much of it is just being in touch with your culture," Contreras says as a new group begins playing the haunting melody of "Volver, Volver" ("Return, Return"). "It's something I remember from growing up, hearing my parents and grandparents listen to the music."
Music on the menu
The Tucson International Mariachi Conference ( www.tucsonmariachi.org or 520/838-3913) features two indoor concerts: the students' Participant Showcase (7 p.m. Apr 21; $10) and the professional Espectacular Concert (7:30 p.m. Apr 22; from $26), featuring the world's best mariachi players and folklórico dancers. Both are at the Tucson Convention Center (260 S. Church Ave.; 520/791-4266). The Fiesta de Garibaldi is in Reid Park at the DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center (10-10 Apr 23; $5, ages 17 and under free; on Country Club Rd. between Broadway Blvd. and 22nd St.).
Several Mexican eateries in Tucson offer live mariachi music; call for schedule.
El Mezón del Cobre. Specializes in Mexican-style seafood. $$. 2960 N. First Ave.; 520/791-0977.
La Fuente. A longtime tourist favorite; try the carne seca chimichanga. $$. 1749 N. Oracle Rd.; 520/623-8659.
La Parilla Suiza. Go for grilled dishes like boneless pork steak with charro beans from Mexico City. $. 4250 W. Ina Rd.; 520/572-7200.
Las Cazuelitas de Tucson. The bustling south-side eatery offers spicy, standard Mexican fare. $. 2615 S. Sixth Ave.; 520/792-0405.
Rigo's Mexican Restaurant. Delicious carne asada in a casual, festive setting. $. 2527 S. Fourth Ave.; 520/882-9323.