North Texas Daily

Mariachi Aguilas echoes traditional sounds of Mexico

Mariachi Aguilas echoes traditional sounds of Mexico

Mariachi Aguilas echoes traditional sounds of Mexico
December 06
00:26 2018

In the music building, a group of student musicians play traditional Mexican music. Mariachi music is hummed by the strings of violins, vihuelas and guitars blend with the staccato of trumpets. The voices of boys and girls sing in Spanish about stories of the country just down south.

Elliott Johnson, director and adjunct professor for the Mariachi Aguilas, has been with the group for five years. He initially came to UNT for his doctorate degree but after leaving the program last year, he stayed on as adjunct for this credit hour course, which students take before joining the mariachi group.

“We have students who have never played mariachi before,” Johnson said. “Then we have those who have been doing it for years and years.”

What it takes to be a Mariachi Aguila

UNT’s Mariachi ensemble performing with JP Elder Middle School Mariachi Estrella Tejana from Fort Worth at their recent fall concert. Courtesy Elliot Johnston

Johnson said the group members are flexible and take up whatever sound is needed in the group.

“We have one student right now who switched from trumpet to guitar,” Johnson said. “He knew a little bit about guitar, but he started at the bottom with the guitar playing [and] we had five trumpets.”

Johnson said the only obstacles the musicians in the group face are playing the music from memory. The fact that the language of the music is in Spanish and the different playing technique for the guitarrón or mariachi bass is tricky.

“I’m very lucky to have players who are very experienced [and] can teach the newbies,” Johnson said.

Johnson said those experienced players sometimes come from mariachi backgrounds where they have been playing the music from a very young age or were surrounded by family members that were mariachis.

For 21-year-old vihuela player and singer Briana Villalobos, the constant adapting of the group is difficult.

“For this particular ensemble, a lot of them are first-timers on the instrument or the genre itself,” Villalobos said.

Reconnecting with culture

Senior Erick Orozco plays vihuela and guitar, and sings for UNT’s mariachi ensemble. Will Baldwin

The most surprising thing about the group for Villalobos has been the confidence she has gained as a result of it.

“[You just have to adjust to] performing in front of people on the spot,” Villalobos said. “Before I would just sing for my mom, and now I feel pretty comfortable performing at the Murchison or Voertman Performance Hall.”

Villalobos, a Mexican herself, grew up listening to her uncles sing songs in the style she is now playing.

For psychology senior Erick Orozco, a guitar player and one of the oldest members, the group has given him a chance to reconnect with his culture.

“My favorite thing has been getting to play the music of my ancestors [and] getting to represent my Mexican identity,” Orozco said.

A learning experience

Sophomore Nathan Phillips plays trumpet for UNT’s mariachi ensemble. Phillips is a music education major at UNT. Will Baldwin

“One of the biggest things for me is trying to represent the culture well,” music education major Jennifer Garland said. “I’m not Mexican, but I love this art form, and I want to do it justice. I don’t want to be the white kid who doesn’t know what they’re doing. I had to sit down and think about what I was doing.”

Garland said she was unsure if she could sing the song “Soy Pura Mexicana,” which means “I’m pure Mexican,” in front of everyone. She was able to overcome her hesitation by thinking of the story-telling nature of the art form, which is a lot about playing the character of the song.

Similarly, sophomore and music education major Nathan Phillips had never played mariachi music until he came to UNT but decided to join the group after Garland encouraged him to.

For Phillips, the group has allowed him to try something new, experience a new culture, meet different people and approach his instrument in a new way.

“For a trumpet player, it’s a whole different kind of playing,” Phillips said. “While Western music is about lengthening notes, mariachi music is more about staccato-playing.”

For non-Spanish speakers, the language has been a fun obstacle and learning experience.

“All the Spanish I’ve learned, I’ve learned from this class,” Garland said. “Everything about this entire experience has been a surprise. I knew absolutely nothing. It’s been surprising just how deep the culture of this music runs. I love the roots this music has and just how this music represents an entire culture.”

In November the Mariachi Aguilas held a joint performance with middle school and high school mariachi groups from schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Johnson’s other job has him teaching high school students how to play mariachi music. He sees how this builds bridges for kids in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to get to university.

“I’m brainwashing them in a positive way,” Johnson said. “They don’t get college at home.”

For Johnson, just getting kids excited about learning and higher education is enough. The Mariachi Aguilas group is not just restricted to music education majors like Garland and Phillips: Villalobos is a business major and Orozco is a psychology major.

I have one student who wants to be a computer science major,” Johnson said. “The fact that they’re in college is what’s most important.”

Featured Image: Freshman Juan Flores plays guitarron for UNT’s mariachi ensemble. Will Baldwin

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Maritza Ramos

Maritza Ramos

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1 Comment

  1. Congy
    Congy December 07, 00:07

    What a great community of amazing people that can connect with each other through music, culture, and heritage! I Love Mariachi Music!

    Reply to this comment

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