Best of Phoenix

Salvador Ojeda Wants To Keep Mariachi from Disappearing in Phoenix

The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now,featuring a series of "as told to" profiles that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

One day, I was walking down the street in Guadalajara. I was 10 years old. And this man came over to me. He said, “Hey, little boy. I just want to see if you have a musical talent.” He said he knew, because I come from this family that sings and plays, that I might be able to sing. I said, “I don’t know if I can sing.” So he asked me to sing the scales with him. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. You know? And I did it. He listened to me, and he said, “Will you practice every day? Do you want to learn?” I said I would. I promised. He said, “I’ll see you tomorrow at the church.” He was the choir director of the church. This is where my professional music career began.

I sang in the church every day. I sang at all the services: funerals, rosaries, Mass. There’s a long tradition of music in my family, mostly from my mother’s side. All my aunts, just everybody was musicians, but not professionals. They had the music, and they used to sing and play at home. Only one aunt, she was playing professionally for a short time. Also my uncle, my mother’s brother, he was a violinist.  
My father was a mariachi when he was in his 20s. After that, he was a barber. But all the barbers in Guadalajara sing and play. You know. He always had his guitar with him at the barber shop.

After high school, I went to school in Guadalajara to study music. When I came to this country, I went to college again, this time to study engineering. I lived in the Bay Area, and then 12 years ago, my wife and I moved to Phoenix. Always I have worked as a mariachi. In America, I play at private parties and restaurants every weekend. Four guys, I play the lead guitar, and I’m the lead singer. I arrange the songs and put together the harmonies, because I am the one with the most experience. It was my dream to have my own group, my own arrangements the way I want them to sound, to project my own taste.

People come up to us when we play, and they say, “Aren’t you guys from Mexico?” Because we play rumbas and sambas and waltzes. Or, they come up and say, “Hey, can you play rock music? Can you play rap?” Because people think a mariachi will play everything. But we play the music of Mexico.

The mariachi, things are changing. Now you find all-female mariachis, and that’s fine. Change can be good. But I worry, if we change too much, the mariachis might go away. Where do you go to learn mariachi music in Phoenix? In California, you have schools and classes to learn the traditions. In Tucson, too. Here, I don’t know. But my phone rings all the time; people want the mariachi music. So maybe I shouldn’t worry. I have to think we will be hearing mariachi music a long time. — As told to Robrt Pela
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela