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Friday, March 23, 2007

Mariachi Llaneros de Houston

The guitarronista asked me as I was leaving: "You play the trumpet?"

I think he must have noticed the middle three fingers of my right hand twitching in unconscious valve-movement patterns over the course of the preceding 2-1/2 hours. Or maybe he noticed that I was just paying more attention to the two trumpet players than to any of the other members of his mariachi band.

"A little," I admitted, "but not like them." I banged my fist to my chest, then held up my index and middle fingers, twisted together, to point to the trompetistas. "They must be brothers — they play together so tightly, tan fuertemente  y dulcemente, just like they're one!" I said. "But you're all terrific, thank you all so much!"

*******

I guess there may be one or two first-rate mariachi bands in Des Moines or Grand Rapids; it wouldn't surprise me too much if there were a half dozen really good ones in Manhattan.

But on a spring Friday night like this one, I'm awfully glad to be a Texan, and to live in a big cultural polyglot like Houston. I wandered into my favorite Mexican restaurant tonight and just lucked into hearing an extended and very spontaneous mariachi jam session.

The seven members of the band — two players each for the trumpets and violins, and one each for the Mexican guitar, vihuela, and guitarrón — I'd heard, and much enjoyed, on many other occasions. They're very polished, very precise, and very good musicians. They wear traditional costumes and they stroll, playing customers' requested favorites for tips. But this is not a touristy restaurant at all; most of the regular patrons are locals, and probably 80% of those are Hispanic. The food ranges from traditional Tex-Mex to deep-interior Mexican dishes. And if you think all mariachi bands are hokey clichés out of 1960s American south-of-the-border movies, then you're very badly mistaken.

*******

Tonight, however, there were four customers at the bar — friends who arrived and left together, I think on a guys' night out — who'd arranged themselves on a semi-circle of barstools, around which the band members had then arrayed themselves. One customer — a large and robust man, at middle-age the oldest of the four, and sporting a proud Pancho Villa mustache that flaunts Anglo stereotypes of Hispanic men — must have been a mariachi himself in his heyday: With the accompaniment of the band and his friends, he was belting out a fabulous assortment of heartfelt vocals that I'd never heard before. The band members listened carefully to him between songs; although my own Spanish is rusty and weak, he seemed to be giving tips not on technique, but on impassioned musical charisma (which he certainly has himself in spades).

The other three customers in his group made up in matching enthusiasm for what they lacked compared to his musical talents. But all eleven of them together were just having a blast, playing and singing stuff that clearly was not from the band's regular repertory, and that they half-knew only by ear at best.

I could tell it was a special night for them too, because the four customers kept holding up their open-flipped cell phones mid-song. I presume that they were transmitting and/or recording for their special someones far away to hear and maybe see them. The musicians and their avid audience shared cheers and tears and upturned bottles and mugs all around.

*******

Mariachis_2Fortunately for them and for everyone else in the restaurant, my own trumpet was safely tucked away at home in my den. I'm just good enough a trumpet player that I can improvise along with most kinds of music — jazz, pop, rock, blues, gospel, classical, military band, or just about whatever (and I like all those and more) — without embarrassing myself in front of tolerant friends or even strangers. But nobody will ever mistake me for a pro, and I'm sure I would have embarrassed the real musicians if I'd asked to sit in with them tonight. (I suspect they might have politely plied me with enough free drinks until I stopped trying.)

I'm no guitarist, but I can mostly grasp how the string players could fill in and complement each other seamlessly once they'd picked up the key and time signatures and the tempo and the basic chord structure from the vocalist; they were doing mostly rhythm background and sometimes tentative vocal harmonies with the lead singer.

Mariachis2 But mariachi trumpets are alternately dominating or accompanying, staccato or legato — and they're almost always very exposed and paired in close, brilliant harmonies. You've got to have range, you've got to have volume, you've got to have chops of steel, and above all else you've got to have brazen confidence in yourself and your compadre. For the life of me, I can't guess how these two trompetistas managed to improvise so tightly, keeping all those qualities even through syncopation, irregular measures, and fast, difficult articulations.

This was like listening to someone dictate spontaneous poetry, the words of which nobody else in the room knows — but with ten other people interjecting their simultaneous and closely interwoven dictation of all the punctuation. I've seen and heard jazz and blues bands, rock and Dixieland bands, all do something similar before. But I just hadn't seen or heard really talented mariachis jam before tonight.

It was just a treat. My cheek muscles are sore from grinning almost continuously for 2-1/2 hours.

*******

Unpaid and unsolicited endorsement: If you happen to be in the Houston area and need a mariachi band, call Pedro Duran at 832/687-0842 for "Mariachi Llaneros de Houston."

I write this kind of post mostly to record my own memories, rather than out of any expectation that anyone else will find them interesting. However, I do particularly like the opening line of this one.

Posted by Beldar at 10:49 PM in Music/Arts | Permalink

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Comments

(1) My Boaz's Ruth made the following comment | Mar 24, 2007 8:50:11 AM | Permalink

You're back! You're back! Thank you for coming back to us!

(2) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 24, 2007 5:14:23 PM | Permalink

I've heard dozens of mariachi bands in my life but I've never seen them jam. What a treat!

(3) Michelle made the following comment | Mar 25, 2007 6:26:59 PM | Permalink

Can you bring yourself to post the name of the restaurant? I hope to be in Houston in late May visiting family. There are no Mariachi bands in Vermont.

Just this afternoon, much to the annoyance of a good friend, I found myself trying to sing this standard, Cucurrucucu Paloma

(4) Dan S made the following comment | Mar 26, 2007 2:06:31 PM | Permalink

Loved this post, Beldar. Not that that's terribly unusual for your posts, but I think the change from lawyerly wonk is refreshing as a contrast.

(5) Paulina Hunter made the following comment | Apr 6, 2007 12:42:55 PM | Permalink

Great story. I love mariachi music, it's so much better than Banda....

Can you imagine the talent out there?

Congratulations on being at the right place at the right time........

(6) wtxsungoddess made the following comment | Apr 21, 2007 9:50:59 PM | Permalink

When you make your way back to the Llano Estacado..Mariachi Amistad in the LBK is awesome.

(7) wtxsungoddess made the following comment | Apr 21, 2007 9:51:45 PM | Permalink

When you make your way back to the Llano Estacado..Mariachi Amistad in the LBK is awesome.

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