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Church opens doors to mariachi camp

Young musicians learn the upbeat Mexican genre at Our Lady of the Angels.

September 06, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Joacim Naranjo plays the trumpet pretty well. But the 16-year-old from East Los Angeles found himself flapping his sore lips like a horse as he and a half dozen other boys tried to master the rapidly cascading sounds of a mariachi song.

That's why he and about 80 boys and girls went to church this week. They were there for mariachi camp.

"It's about getting the notes down," Joacim said during a break. "Once you get the notes down, you just practice until you can play faster. This camp helps us a lot. Our [school] teacher doesn't know that much about mariachi music. He's more into classical music."

For three days this week, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels played host to the Mariachi USA Foundation's music camp. Most of the children already play in school bands, but many were relative novices when it came to playing music more familiar to their parents.

And the church setting wasn't as random as it may seem. More than 70% of the Los Angeles archdiocese's 5 million Catholics are Latino -- most of Mexican descent. And mariachi music has been embedded in many Catholic rituals, such as Masses for the Virgin of Guadalupe, weddings and funerals.

"This was the very first music that welcomed people here when we opened," said Deacon Manny Martinez of Our Lady of the Angels. "It wasn't sacred music. It was mariachi music."

The $350 cost per student to attend the camp was covered by donations. On Sept. 26, the students will perform at the cathedral. Daniel Guzman, 13, and his friend Christopher Hernandez, 11, said they had performed mariachi songs at a church in Boyle Heights.

"That was good," Daniel recalled as he munched on a sandwich during a break. "We played 'Cielito Lindo,' 'Guadalajara' and 'Mariachi Loco.' "

Christopher said he thought playing music could be spiritual.

"You talk to people with music," said Christopher, who wore a gold crucifix under his white polo shirt. "If they're depressed, you play something fast."

At school, the boys said, they sometimes get teased for being in the band. But at the camp, they were in their element.

In one conference room, Rhonda Garcia, 33, a mariachi instructor from San Antonio, Texas, peppered young intermediate violinists -- most of them relatively Americanized -- with questions about the different mariachi styles and the names of singers.

Their playing sounded a bit droopy for mariachi music and was clearly a work in progress. But they had picked up a lot on their own, and from their parents. Garcia was impressed when one girl mentioned the name of an old-time singer.

"You're giving me recent ones, but she just gave me an old one. Do you know Lola Beltran?" Garcia asked the rest of the class, before singing a snippet of one of her most famous songs.

Cucurrucucu, Paloma . . . Most of the children instantly recognized the song, even if they weren't familiar with the name of the singer.

Garcia and the other instructors were mariachi music school teachers in Texas. Although many L.A. area schools offer band, most do not offer mariachi instruction -- unlike in many parts of Texas.

"We have programs that have even outgrown the band," Garcia said. "One of the things I'm noticing is that a lot of the kids are getting training from their home and family."

Although many of the children said they wanted to pursue careers as professional musicians, others said they simply enjoyed playing music and the discipline they got from it.

"I want to be a doctor," said Luis Baza, 13, a guitar player from Boyle Heights. "People say playing music makes you more intelligent."

"It makes you think faster," Daniel added.

Some of the students said playing mariachi music was something ingrained.

"It's in our veins," Gustavo Zambrano, 9, explained. "It's because our parents used to play it, and our grandparents and our ancestors. They passed it on to us."

Zelanda Gudino, 10, said, "You get into it so much, you can never stop."

"It's in our veins," repeated Gustavo, just in case the message was not clear.

As part of the camp, the children got a tour on Friday of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The day before, they toured the cathedral.

"Here's my Virgencita of Guadalupe," cooed Carolina Gaytan, 58, the grandmother of two of the young musicians, as she looked upon a shrine. Again using the diminutive, affectionate term for "Virgin," she added, "How would I like them to come here and play for the Virgencita."

For the children, the highlight of the tour was when Martinez introduced them to the cathedral's organist, Sal Soria.

When it became apparent that Soria was not above taking requests, boys and girls quickly tossed out suggestions, mostly themes of television shows and movies -- "Star Wars," "The Simpsons," "Titanic." He complied with some requests before finally asking if the students knew Schubert's "Ave Maria."

Violinist Julieta Gonzalez, 14, of San Bernardino raised her hand. Soria started to play and she began singing in Latin -- Ave Maria, gratia plena -- her voice soaring.

Tourists stopped to watch. When the song ended, everyone in the cathedral burst into applause.



Information on the mariachi benefit concert Sept. 26 can be found at

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