A Conversation with Linda Ronstadt
The hugely successful San Jose International Mariachi and Latin Music Festival is upon us again. Now in its seventeenth year, the festival begins on September 7 at the HP Pavilion. This year’s concerts feature a long, impressive list of top mariachi and Latin artists, including names that would be familiar to the average music fan such as Lila Downs, Ersi Arvizu (with Ry Cooder) and Linda Ronstadt, who is also the festival’s chief adviser.
Many music lovers, who know Ronstadt from her string of big country rock hits in the 70s, and perhaps for singing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or standards with Nelson Riddle, are often surprised to find out that she is an excellent mariachi singer and historian, and a traditionalist as well. In fact, being a musicologist myself, I can tell you that I have never heard anyone speak with as much authority on and historical knowledge of the subject as Linda Ronstadt. Anyone with any doubts about her mariachi expertise can hear for themselves by listening to Ronstadt’s 1987 CD, Canciones de Mi Padre.
Talking to Ronstadt, I immediately understood why this should be so. Mariachi is a representation of her heritage. She is genetically and culturally steeped in all the many diverse ancestral elements that have gone into the creation and evolution of this multicultural musical form. Like her friend and the festival’s producer, Marcela Aviles, Ronstadt is half Mexican and grew up in a bilingual home in Tucson. She is the daughter and granddaughter of musicians and many in her family are also professional musicians. Her grandfather was a “buggy builder” and composer and band leader. Her father “had a beautiful voice and sang Mexican and American standards.” Ronstadt says that everyone in her family sang and she picked it up from an early age and naturally assumed it was the same in every family.
Her earliest musical memory is listening to flamenco records at home with her father, and she remembers listening with her grandmother to recordings of operas sung by Maria Callas, who Ronstadt believes was “the greatest voice of the twentieth century.”
Her great-grandfather was a colonel in the Prussian Army who migrated to Mexico, a very interesting fact when you consider that mariachi music was also born of parents from European and Latin American traditions. In fact, like most of the people of Mexico, America, and the rest of the New World, mariachi is a hybrid of many musical bloodlines, including indo-American, German, Alsatian, French and Spanish.
Mariachi developed over time around the rancheras of Jalisco on the west coast of Mexico, where rural folk musicians adopted the instruments and styles of many European antecedents and synthesized them into a unique cultural expression of Mexico’s agrarian working class.
At first, mariachi was played by traveling laborer/musicians that performed at weddings and other celebrations requiring dance music. The lyrics of the music, which sprang from the trials and tribulations of the simple life, were accompanied by portable instruments brought to Mexico by the Spanish: violins, harps, and a variety of members from the guitar family. (The modal material and melismatic vocal expressions of flamenco are also evident in mariachi.) As the form became more popular, the presentation was urbanized, the musicians became professionals, colorful costumes and dance activity became features, and after World War I, instruments such as cornets, trumpets and woodwinds were added.
It should be no surprise that Ronstadt enthusiastically supports the study of mariachi traditions in training the next generation of performers, and has put that enthusiasm to work in helping to formulate the many workshops and educational events that are a big part of the festival. She is also very keen on the adobe and straw bale construction workshops that explore traditional building techniques, and she hopes to work with the festival to add cooking workshops in the future. All of this fits her view that human life should be rooted in the sustaining of community first and foremost.
We discussed music and politics, a subject that is close to Ronstadt’s heart. Like the music of the mariachi genre, she makes it a point to find the “essence” of humanity and show it through her work as an artist. She believes that musicians have an “obligation to spread the news” of contemporary political and social issues. Musicians should not “tell people how to vote” but “evoke” stories of the plight of ordinary people in their everyday lives that illustrate a social or political point that will help listeners decide for themselves what is right.
Ronstadt is especially interested and active in issues related to the U.S.-Mexican border. She says the situation there is “terrible—a meat grinder. Nobody should be made to endure such suffering.” She believes that if most Americans saw what goes on there with their own eyes, they would be disgusted.
Finally, I brought up the subject of how a few local self-proclaimed mariachi “purists” have had some harsh words for the way the San Jose festival celebrates mariachi in its greater cultural context. We discussed how they don’t seem to get that the genre is part of a continuum of traditions that is constantly absorbing influences, morphing and spawning new branches. Some who proclaim themselves experts have even said that the festival should not have such artists as Los Lobos and others who have appeared in the past as they believe these artists are not central to the mariachi tradition (even though the members of Los Lobos are excellent Mexican roots musicians and have successfully married traditional forms to rock and blues). The critics also don’t seem to get that part of the success of the festival is that ordinary music lovers are drawn to it by artists well known to them, like Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt, and these festival goers get their first taste of mariachi that way.
Except for those few ignorant critics, the rest of us can enjoy the first-class offerings of the 17th Annual San Jose International Mariachi and Latin Music Festival. Don’t miss this premier San Jose event. I’ll see you there.
Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs and Aida Cuevas will perform with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Mariachi Cobre, and Los Lupenos de San Jose on September 27 at the San Jose State Event Center at 8 pm.
For complete festival information, go to http://sanjosemariachifestival.com/