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Mariachi Vargas Demonstrates It Has No Equal

Pop music review: The group plays flawlessly. Singer Nydia Rojas, meanwhile, is allowed to perform only three songs.


COSTA MESA — You wanna have a mariachi orchestra? That's easy.

Just assemble a dozen first-class musicians in charro costumes, a few trumpets, violins and guitarrones and teach them the usual repertoire: "Guadalajara," "El Jarabe Tapatio," a potpourri of Jose Alfredo Jimenez's classics and, even better, mariachi versions of such pop classics as "New York, New York" and "Macarena."

Unless, of course, you want to sound like Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan.

Just when you thought everything in mariachi had been invented, when the festivals are getting monotonous and all orchestras seem to sound the same, up comes Mariachi Vargas to send a loud message: This is the real stuff.

On a U.S. tour celebrating the group's 100th anniversary, Mexico's most respected mariachi was in town Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Its sold-out, flawless performance, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, honored the reputation of the orchestra that changed the direction of mariachi music in the early '30s.

It was without doubt the best display of mariachi virtuosity in Orange and Los Angeles counties in recent memory.

Led with disarming charisma by Pepe Martinez, Mariachi Vargas proved itself way ahead of all others in collective and individual vocals and instrumentation, and with traditional mariachi arranged in a sophisticated and an ambitious way. All local competition seems dwarfed by comparison.

In its version of Gloria Estefan's "Con los Anos Que Me Quedan" (With the years I have left), singer and orchestra traveled different roads, with notes played and sung in such an unorthodox way that it seemed there was the ghost of Ornette Coleman's Mexican cousin. Yet, somehow, everything was mariachi--unadulterated, powerful, unusually challenging, at times sounding like chamber music, and with violin solos that brought the house down.


Too bad the opening set by Mariachi Tlaquepaque was so long. Doing the usual crowd-pleasing recipe of old classics, with vocals sounding better collectively than individually, the Placentia-based ensemble played for more than 90 minutes, offering nothing new and using valuable time that could have been better utilized by Mariachi Vargas.

The concert also brought the unique opportunity to hear the dream match up of Nydia Rojas and Monica Trevino, arguably the two best female mariachi voices today.

Rojas, a 16-year-old living in Hacienda Heights and formerly with the all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, has just released a fine album on Arista Latin and is the hottest thing in mariachi today. Trevino, a former member of Nati Cano's Los Camperos, is more experienced and just as good, and her own starring role in the world of ranchera divas is long overdue.

While Trevino had enough opportunity to show her rich vocal arsenal, Rojas, absurdly, was allowed only to sing three songs, when a good amount of those present came to hear her, not Tlaquepaque.

Ay, ay, ay, Jose. It is a man's world that keeps throwing bones to its few women, when it is precisely they--at least locally--who are contributing to the music's most interesting side.

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