The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 20, 2004; Page A13

Mexican Village Steps to Its Own Beat

Farmers Trade Spades for Chance to Play in Mariachi Bands

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service

LA CANDELARIA TLAPALA, Mexico -- The happy sounds of mariachi music -- the strings and horns and soaring lyrics of love -- rise from houses and shops and fill the streets of this little village on a cool winter morning. It is not a party; it is the sound of an industry, of jobs and hope.

In a yellow-brick music store on a narrow alley, Concepcion Tovar, 35, a corn farmer in a baseball cap, stands concentrating on his sheet music, drawing his bow across the strings of a violin tucked tightly under his chin. He's been taking two-hour lessons with a local master nearly every day for the past three years, following the lead of scores of other farmers and factory workers who have transformed this village into one of the country's busiest centers of mariachi music.

"It's a passion, something I want to do," says Tovar, adding that he dreams of the day he'll be dressed in the wide sombrero and silver-spangled suit of a mariachi, performing before a paying audience.

This village, 17 miles east of Mexico City at the base of the towering "sleeping woman," as the snow-covered Iztaccihuatl volcano is known, has been building its mariachi industry for 40 years; it now supports more than half the town's 4,000 residents. While other poor farming villages have been hollowed out by emigration to the United States, La Candelaria Tlapala has reinvented itself by tapping into a rhythm that is spreading around the globe.

Mariachis have never been more hip, according to those who track the traditional Mexican music form that dates back at least to the 19th century. More recently, mariachi groups have become more professional and respected internationally, playing at Lincoln Center in New York and with prestigious orchestras in top concert halls worldwide. The annual International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, started 10 years ago and now attracts more than 2 million people and mariachi groups from nearly a dozen countries, including Japan, Belgium and Croatia.

"It is a very expressive sound -- it just gets you and you can't ignore it," said Daniel Sheehy, a mariachi musician and ethnomusicologist at the Smithsonian Institution whose group has played at the White House.

For millions of Mexicans, the festive sound, the deeply sentimental lyrics and the memories of life's milestones commemorated with mariachi music have embedded it
deeply in the national identity.

Mariachis have long been celebrated in Mexican life and films, and lovers here still hire them for serenades. The explosive growth of the Mexican population in the
United States -- there are now more than 20 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans living north of the border -- has undoubtedly added to the popularity of
mariachi music in the United States.

"There has been a boom in the whole mariachi culture," said Sheehy, pointing to the upswing in business for tailors who make the cowboy-style suits, with silver
ornaments down the sides of the pants, as well as for craftsmen who make mariachi instruments such as the guitarron, a large bass guitar.

Officials at the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington said they receive calls every week from people looking for a mariachi band to play at a company party or
event. "It's great news for Mexican culture," said Juan Manuel Saldivar, the institute's deputy director.

Hundreds of U.S. public schools, many of them in Texas, offer courses that teach mariachi music. Some schools even have their own school mariachi band. Billed as
the first of its kind in the Northeast, a mariachi academy opened recently in New York City. And once a year, the Mariachi USA concert turns the 18,000-seat
Hollywood Bowl into "an extension of Mexico," according to producer Rodri J. Rodriguez. June's concert, she said, is already on its way to being another sellout.

The international popularity of mariachis, some experts say, spiked after the release of Linda Ronstadt's Grammy-winning album, "Canciones de Mi Padre," or
"Songs of My Father," in the late 1980s. The musicians in this town say they are grateful, too, for the exposure mariachis are getting from a recent spate of
Hollywood movies about Mexico, such as last year's "Once Upon a Time In Mexico" starring Antonio Banderas.

"If it weren't for the mariachis, we'd be just like every other town," said Jesus Meraz Vazquez, 42, a mariachi from La Candelaria Tlapala.

Once a visitor drives past the junked cars and the dried-up cornfields on the main road leading into town, the signs and sounds of the mariachi are everywhere. A
large sign declares this the "place of mariachis," and billboards offer the telephone number of singing coaches. The Casa de Musica, or House of Music, is filled with
row after row of mariachi boots and all kinds of musical accessories, from oil for the trumpets to guitar strings. From behind the counter, the strains of violin lessons
spill into the street, where bicycle taxis ferry shoppers.

A dozen kiosks, each marked with the name of a different mariachi band, line the first major intersection. Customers come here to book a group and typically pay
between $125 to $180 an hour for a nine-piece ensemble.

The busy days are on weekends, when some groups play five or more engagements a day. But there are dry times, too, when the phone might ring only a couple of
times a week. Mariachis, who range in age from 11 to 70, are armed with cell phones and business cards, standing ready to take up their instruments when there is a
birthday or anniversary to be celebrated.

Mariachi groups distinguish themselves here by name and suit color, often advertising with a sign posted in front of their homes. They insist the competition is friendly,
like a rivalry between sports teams.

In the town's written history, Alejandro Rosales Chavez is credited with forming the first mariachi group about 35 years ago. Today, with more than 200 full-time
musicians and more in training, mariachi music is the town's dominant business. Many sons and a few daughters play alongside their fathers, and others join the
mariachi trade later in life.

"I used to work in a yarn factory," said Roberto Rivera, 43, who switched to music eight years ago and now proudly wears a blue suede mariachi suit with matching
royal blue boots.

His neighbor, Meraz Vazquez, who once worked in an accounting office, counts among the highlights of his musical career playing for Pope John Paul II during a
visit to Mexico. "In the end, I could support my family better as a mariachi," he said, saying he enjoyed the traditional lyrics about patriotism and "the most beautiful
women, bravest men and deepest love."

With the price of a ton of corn -- the yield of an entire year of hard labor in some of the small plots here -- going for as little as $200, the chance to earn as much as
$20 an hour playing music is appealing, said Maurilio Vazquez, the owner of Casa de Musica.

Herminio Juarez Vazquez, 65, whose sons and daughter play mariachi music, said he is glad how life has worked out since he started playing the guitar with the first
groups here in the late 1960s. "Music has become our way of life; it sustains our family," he said. "There is music in our house every day."

                                               © 2004