The Christmas Mariachi Festival is "an explosion of music and color and pageantry," reports Lorenzo Lucas, production manager for this Saturday's event. Three ensembles with about a dozen musicians each will employ mariachi's characteristic deep-bass guitarrón, blasting trumpets, and stirring violins to pour out the tunes as Tucson dance troupe Ballet Folklorico San Juan brings its swirling skirts and pounding footwork right into the aisles of America West Arena.
While Phoenix may lack a dusting of snow, these mariachis in brightly colored, silver-studded charro (cowboy) outfits prove that a Southwestern Christmas has its own advantages.
Born of Indian roots, voiced by Spanish instruments, and flavored by the Revolution, mariachi is the sound of Mexico, associated with fiestas of all kinds. "You hear mariachis at baptisms, quinceañeras, birthdays and anniversaries," Lucas says. "To a lot of Hispanics, mariachi music takes them back to special moments in their lives." So of course, singing along is definitely encouraged. Mariachi fans know the words to year-round classics like "Guadalajara" or "La Negra" as well as other folks know "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." And like any Christmas favorites, this nostalgic music is capable of producing strong waves of emotion. Be prepared for audience members to let loose with the characteristic grito del cuaco, a difficult-to-transcribe, mariachi-inspired cry that can sound by turns mournful and celebratory.
Arizona's own Linda Ronstadt is a special guest at this year's celebration. She will perform with Los Camperos de Nati Cano, collaborators on her 1990 mariachi-flavored album Canciones de Mi Padre. Another special guest, Venezuela's romantic balladeer Jóse Luis Rodríguez, known as "El Puma," will sing with Grammy-nominated Los Angeles-based Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jóse Hernández. Described by Lucas as "hyper mariachi," Sol de Mexico has played a large part in expanding the mariachi repertoire over the past 25 years.
"A lot of mariachis weren't ready to hear the type of arrangements that I was including," acknowledges Sol's leader Hernández. "Now they are very popular." Signature crowd-pleasers include Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," Glenn Miller big-band pieces, and even some country covers.
Christmas is actually one of the few celebrations in Mexico that is not characterized by the presence of mariachis. A traditional Mexican Christmas usually focuses more on the nine days of posadas (see the Thursday listing on this page) or elaborate nacimientos (Nativity scenes). But here in Arizona where we straddle two cultures, we have a special dispensation to forge new holiday traditions. Start one of your own this Saturday and bring a little flavor to your Navidad.