Spend a day at the alfresco Fiesta de Garibaldi with hours of folklórico dancing.
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.