A spectacular 3-plus hours of mariachi

The Arizona Daily Star

By Cathalena E. Burch

The high-pitched scream of dozens of trumpets pierced the hollow echo of the Tucson Arena Friday night as a band of vihuelas, guitars and guitarrons created a harmonic convergence with an orchestra- sized complement of violinists and a handful of mariachi harpists.

Student mariachi players wearing wide-brimmed hats and outfitted in dazzling silver-studded charros uniforms played from the aisles, stacked one or two to a stair from the arena floor to the second tier of seats. Down on the floor, colorfully dressed young folklorico dancers swirled and twirled in the aisles between seats. Their flowing red, pink, orange and lime-green dresses swished with every move as the music crescendoed.
The 27th annual Tucson International Mariachi Conference Espectacular Concert lived up to its name - spectacular. There was enough glitz and glitter to impress audience members who came from as far away as Texas, California, New Mexico and Nogales.

It would be easy to say that a great many of the nearly 5,000 loosely filling the arena came to see hometown girl Linda Ronstadt make her much-heralded conference return. She's been absent 13 years from a festival that she is largely credited with popularizing after the 1987 release of her multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning mariachi album "Canciones de Mi Padre" (Songs of My Father). The album, which featured this year's festival's two headlining mariachis - Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan - thrust the genre into the mainstream American consciousness for the first time and gave it a place beyond a Mexican restaurant soundtrack.

But Ronstadt's appearance at Friday's concert seemed fleeting with all that was going on. She came out an hour into the 3 1/2- hour concert and sang five songs - several of them from that Grammy album - before rushing offstage and into a waiting car that was supposed to take her to the airport, emcee Jose Ronstadt told the crowd. She had a flight to catch to North Carolina for her appearance at MerleFest today with the 2009 Grammy-winning Mariachi Los Camperos, with whom she shared the stage Friday.

She and the ensemble, which has been part of the Tucson conference for 23 of its 27 years and has been performing with Ronstadt just as long, shared an intense chemistry.

On Friday, she was in wonderful vocal form; her richly nuanced alto was a perfect complement for the tenor-leaning vocal stylings of Los Camperos. A highlight of her performance was a duet with the mariachi's arranger and director Jesus "Chuy" Guzman on "Tu Solo Tu" (You Only You).

Ronstadt shared the mariachi diva spotlight with an equally impressive diva of the genre, Eugenia Leon, making her first conference appearance and her first Tucson appearance since she played Centennial Hall in 2003. Leon, a superstar of Mexican music for three decades, showcased an unfailing smoky alto that was alternately playful and lusty, particularly on the pair of ballads she performed.

Legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, which holds the title of best mariachi in the world, closed the concert. The crowd gave the group a thundering reception as it dug into the hit "Rancho Grande." The echo at the back of the arena from fans singing along hung gloriously in the air until it was interrupted when one of the musicians let loose a piercing grito.

Friday's concert ended with both headlining mariachis sharing the stage. That, some might argue, was worth the price of admission.

But the mission of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference is to teach, inspire and encourage young musicians so that they can carry on the Mexican traditions and culture of the genre. So all of the star-studded performances, from Ronstadt to Leon and the big- league mariachis, was icing. The cake was the kids: 860 students of mariachi participating in the conference's workshops and performances.

On Friday night, those young, dreamy-eyed teens and tweens strummed those oversize guitarrons that in some cases were so big the player disappeared behind the instrument. They blew on the trumpets while standing tall on those metal stairs and not making the slightest squeak when they shifted their weight. They strummed the mariachi harps that weren't nearly as big as traditional harps but still produced a heavenly whisper. And they danced the traditional dance, dashing from the back of the arena floor to the stage front in perfect step with their partners and coming to a stop in a fluid motion that effortlessly culminated in a twirl.
If the future of mariachi is in the hands of those 860 kids, it has a fighting chance to be around and thrive beyond their generation.