Reporting from Guadalajara, Mexico — —
Franciscan priest Hector Ventura believes that God likes mariachi music, which might explain why the good father invited an all-female mariachi group to play at the noon Mass at the 300-year-old Basilica de Zapopan on the edge of Guadalajara.
"It is music that comes from the heart," Ventura said, nodding toward the balcony where the musicians stood. "It is music that makes us Mexican. It is a gift from God."
But whether it's as popular with the people is another story. Sunday's performance at the basilica was part of the annual Guadalajara International Mariachi Festival, a 17-year-old event that has shrunk in both size and scope in recent years.
Just hours after Ventura gave mariachi his blessing, the festival drew to a close in the huge plaza that spills out in front of the church. A year ago that concert featured 549 musicians; on Sunday, just three groups played. And though organizers estimated the closing event's crowd at 5,000, that estimate was clearly generous since the square was only half full.
The decline in mariachi's popularity here is significant given Guadalajara's importance to the genre, which was born in the nearby town of Cocula well over 100 years ago. It's as if audiences in Nashville had suddenly stopped listening to country music.
The mariachi was originally inspired in part by Spanish theatrical orchestras, which included violins, the harp and guitars. Over time, mariachi music incorporated trumpets and accordions. Strolling mariachis also adopted a distinctive style of dress, the traje de charro, a heavily ornamented Mexican cowboy suit consisting of a waist-length riding jacket, leather pants and cowboy boots. But mariachis didn't really earn their place in Mexican history and folklore until the mid-1930s, after Silvestre Vargas moved his mariachi group from Jalisco to Mexico City, where it was invited to play at the inauguration of populist President Lazaro Cardenas.
Urban audiences quickly took to the sad peasant songs of country life, unrequited love and relationships lost and mariachi music became as much an emblem of Mexico as the sombrero. The sombrero has since become an outdated cliché, however, and now mariachi is fighting for its place in a crowded Spanish-language musical landscape dominated by youth-oriented genres such as rock en español, banda and norteña.
That chasm may be growing. In a recent poll Mexican youth picked Canadian teenager Justin Bieber as their favorite singer. Not everyone sees this as a crisis, though. In fact, mariachis have been through this before.
"I don't think it will ever die. I just think there are stages," says Victor Valdez of the five-man Mezcla Mexicana, one of more than three dozen groups that took part in the festival, some coming from as far away as Slovakia to perform in parks and shopping centers, restaurants and concert halls in and around Guadalajara.
Valdez's group played Kamilos 333, a family-style Mexican restaurant so traditional it has framed pictures of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata on the walls. But outside of the festival, manager Fermin Camarena says he plays recorded pop music in his restaurant because that's what his customers want.
The growing generation gap was obvious on the final weekend of this year's festival. Although Friday night's gala at the stately Teatro Degollado drew a sellout crowd of more than 1,400, few in the crowd were younger than 40. The next night Latin Grammy winner Pedro Fernández joined the same three mariachi groups for a four-hour concert at the modern Auditorio Telmex, where they played before wide swaths of vacant seats at the same time a crowd of 20,000 turned out for an open-air rock en españolshow across town.
Celestino Fernández, a University of Arizona professor who has been involved with Tucson's mariachi conference since its founding in 1983, said the problem isn't so much a shrinking audience for mariachi as it is a splintering one. When the Tucson event was launched, it was the only mariachi festival of its kind but its success inspired imitators in more than a dozen other cities, from Las Vegas and Albuquerque to Los Angeles and Houston.
Experts point out that mariachi's following may be growing in ways that can't be measured by CD sales, radio playlists or festival attendance figures. Partly because of the festival movement, mariachi music now has fervent followings in places such as Japan, Belgium, France, Australia and throughout Latin America.
Jesús "Chuy" Guzman has played in many of those countries as musical director for Los Camperos de Nati Cano, a world-renowned mariachi ensemble based in Southern California.
"Conjuntos and banda, that's what's attracting the attention of the young people," says Guzman, whose group is a Guadalajara festival mainstay. "Right now is the time of commercialization. But what is mariachi? Art! And art never dies."