Mariachi Imitators Strike a Sour Note
Mexico's Musical Purists Urge Controls To Stem Flood of Spangled Troubadours
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY -- At every hour of every day in Garibaldi Plaza, there is a song waiting to be sung for the right price.
Clusters of mariachis -- elaborately dressed, traditional Mexican musicians -- gather near bronze statues of past mariachi stars, hoping to be hired for a birthday party or romantic serenade. The tradition dates back nearly a century, but today there are sour notes amid the soaring sounds of brass and strings in this world-famous plaza.
"It's an invasion! Too many people claiming to be mariachis!" complained Alfredo Ledesma Hernandez, a violinist who has worked in Garibaldi for 20 years. He said rising unemployment has led bricklayers, farmers and others with no musical training or talent to don mariachi costumes and pass themselves off as the real thing.
"These fake mariachis hurt our reputation," said Ledesma, who was wearing his genuine mariachi outfit -- tight bolero suit with silver trim, wide-brimmed hat and shiny boots. "They have holes in their suits. Their shoes are not clean. They don't know the words to the songs."
Mariachis have gathered since the 1920s in Garibaldi, one of the city's most colorful and lively spots, where police look the other way when tequila is tippled in public. Visitors come from all over Mexico, and increasingly from abroad, to eat and drink in the plaza's many cantinas while listening to sentimental classics that most Mexicans know by heart.
Others come to hire mariachis to mark the happy or sad milestones in their lives, from baptisms to funerals, while lovers young and old drive up and offer mariachis a handful of peso notes to sing to their sweethearts.
But purists worry that the cherished traditions of Garibaldi mariachis mean nothing to the impostors, who are merely trying to cash in on the growing popularity of a musical genre that is increasingly taught and played in the United States and other parts of the world.
Pedro Espinoza Hernandez, general secretary of the 2,000-strong mariachi union, said as many as 4,000 musicians, some of whom were little more than construction workers in fancy dress, now worked in the city block-sized plaza, which sits amid the crumbling slums and architectural gems of Mexico City's historic center. On a busy weekend night, hundreds of musicians, including tone-deaf imitators, stroll the square, he said.
"There have never been so many," he said. "It's too much."
According to the union, a true mariachi band must feature at least six musicians and a minimum of two violins, a trumpet, a guitar, a guitarron (a large bass-like instrument) and a vihuela, which resembles a guitar. The more elaborate bands have 15 or more members. Musicians from as far away as Japan have come here to copy the unique design of the tight jackets and trousers with silver spangles sewn down the outer leg seams.
Espinoza said the impostors attract business by charging about half the going rate, as little as $100 an hour for an eight-piece group to play at a party, or $6 for a tune on the spot. "They charge too little and play horribly," he said, adding that the off-key pretenders are stealing work from professionals and damaging their reputation.
Both the union and city government officials are trying to control what they call "the black market mariachi problem." The city recently started a "Safe Musicians" program, in which official ID cards are passed out to union-certified musicians. Officials are advising customers to checks those cards to avoid ending up with an out-of-work plumber spoiling somebody's wedding.
Many customers are taking that precaution one step further by demanding that mariachis pass an impromptu test. If they can't immediately produce a tear-jerking version of a song like "El Rey" ("The King") -- as well-known here as "Happy Birthday" is in the United States -- they don't get the gig.
Octavio Ruelos, an office worker, Bañales did a little comparison shopping when he rushed up to the plaza to find a mariachi band for his boss's birthday party that same afternoon. He approached members of one group, demanded a quick audition and quickly concluded that the only place they should be singing was in the shower.
"A bit disappointing," he said, diplomatically.
Then he raced over to an octet dressed sharply in cream-colored suits with tomato-red bow ties and white cowboy boots.
"Can you play 'Sabes Una Cosa?' " ("You Know What?") he asked them. "Of course," one player said, and the band immediately struck up a lovely sidewalk serenade of trumpets, violins and guitars. The lead singer crooned, "I have something to tell you, and I don't know how to explain. . . ." Ruelos looked pleased. A price was quickly agreed upon, the band piled into a van and everyone roared off to Ruelos's office.
Jose Luis Tamayo, a city official, said the government was trying to turn back the clock to 2000, when the number of musicians in Garibaldi was more manageable. To do that, he said the city planned to help some of newcomers find other work. Those with talent, he said, may find work playing in restaurants. As for those who cannot carry a tune, he added, officials will "invite them" to return to their original jobs.
"It is very important to have control of the mariachis," Tamayo said. "If not, we will have musicians in all the streets of the city." He also noted that a few of the fakes have turned out to be thieves who robbed their customers when they got them alone.
One recent evening, Alfredo Ortiz Gonzalez joined the throng of mariachis beside the plaza, waving at cars to snag a customer. He said he had played for a couple of years in Chicago, then came to Garibaldi in 2001. Nearby stood another hopeful, with his bow tie missing and his shirt hanging sloppily over his pants.
"There are good ones and bad ones, but they are just trying to earn a living," Ortiz observed. "We all have the right to try to play music."