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Mariachi Fever: Band Members Are on a Stroll

May 01, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — If you would like to know just how hot mariachi music has become here in the last few years, Pedro Gonzalez is the man to ask.

In 1973, when Gonzalez joined his first group of strolling, guitar-strumming minstrels serenading listeners with buoyant Mexican folk songs, there were only four or five mariachi bands in the county, he said.

And most could find work only once or twice a month, either at private parties in the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of South Bay or at out-of-the-way Mexican restaurants, where most of their pay came from tips.

By the time he assembled his six-member group seven years later, the number of mariachi bands in the county had risen to eight, Gonzalez said, and most were performing at least once a week.

Today, San Diego's mariachi explosion packs a lot of punch. There are close to 20 bands working an average of three or four times a week--and earning as much as $200 an hour.

They're no longer restricted to private parties and Mexican restaurants, either. Mariachi bands are now common at conventions, hotel and shopping-center openings, civic celebrations and other public functions.

There's even a "mariachi Mass" each Sunday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on Otay Mesa.

"With the county's Hispanic population expanding every year, there's more demand now for mariachi bands than ever before," Gonzalez said.

"Many of the larger Mexican restaurants around town have put together their own mariachi bands, and there are also a number of Tijuana groups that come across the border every weekend to play in bars and nightclubs all over South Bay and Barrio Logan.

"Everywhere you look, it seems, there's a mariachi band. And based on all the calls we've been getting lately, the demand is going to go up even higher in the future."

Not that Gonzalez minds. Despite the growing competition from other mariachis, the Pedro Gonzalez Mariachis continue to be one of the most popular.

Aside from their bread-and-butter gigs at weddings, conventions, and private parties throughout the county, they've performed in recent years at virtually every top hotel in town, including the Hotel Inter-Continental, the Hotel del Coronado, and the two Harbor Island Sheratons.

They've played at the grand opening of Seaport Village, last summer's America's Finest City Week celebration, and such popular Mexican restaurants as El Torito and Dos Amigos.

They recently made their television debut in the miniseries "Space," performing in the party scene in which James Garner and the astronauts are celebrating a successful orbit around Earth.

This weekend at the Cinco de Mayo celebration at Old Town's Bazaar del Mundo, the Pedro Gonzalez Mariachis will be one of four mariachi bands serenading visitors.

Mariachi music originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the mid-1800s, right before Mexico's war for independence from France, Gonzalez said.

"The wealthy Frenchmen would hire bands of strolling musicians to play at their weddings, and that's where the name 'mariachi' first came into use: It's the French word for marriage ," Gonzalez said.

"These musicians would stroll around the wedding party, singing and playing guitars and violins for the guests. And since they were always on their feet, they began to develop portable instruments that we still use today, such as the guitarron, or six-string fretless bass, and the vihuela, or five-string rhythm guitar.

"After the revolution broke out, the Mexican soldiers brought mariachi music with them into the fields, often fashioning their own instruments and composing new songs about the battles they fought and their comrades who were killed."

One such war song, Gonzalez said, is the mariachi anthem, "La Cucaracha," which is not about a cockroach, "as most gringos think," but about a valiant nurse who provided comfort for the battle-weary soldiers.

By the time the war ended, mariachi music had become an important element of Mexican culture, Gonzalez said.

With their nation once again at peace, the strolling bands of six to eight musicians returned to the romantic songs they had sung during the period of French rule. Eventually they added trumpets and other brass instruments to produce a fuller, more joyous, sound that is still their trademark.

Like most local mariachi bands, the Pedro Gonzalez Mariachis have over the years become a "professional outfit," Gonzalez said, concerned with putting on the best show they can.

Instead of wearing whatever is comfortable, they now have a wardrobe of nine different outfits, from the all-white costumes they don at weddings to the more colorful jackets, silver-lined pants, and black hats they wear at public functions.

And instead of mingling in the food lines or at the bar when they're done playing a convention, Gonzalez said, he and his five band members go straight home after their gigs and plot their next rehearsals.

"All six of us still have day jobs, but this sure helps us pay for the groceries," Gonzalez said. "We don't expect to be big recording stars, but if we can continue making this kind of money until we're able to retire, I'll be happy."

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