By any measure, this year’s San Jose Mariachi and Latin Music Festival was a triumph. As a cultural event, it was world class, one of the best ever in our city or anywhere else in the world I have been. People attended from far and wide, including New York, Las Vegas, Tucson and Florida. The workshop students came from San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Gilroy, Oxnard and, of course, San Jose. It was expertly programmed, well organized, drew large crowds of people of all ages (35,000 in total), colors and backgrounds, and it was entirely peaceful. The festival’s producer, Marcela Davison Aviles, and artistic director, Linda Ronstadt, deserve the high praise they are getting from everyone I talk to.
There were many high points for me. Friday night’s concert at the cozy and underused Montgomery Theater was like a table of contents for what was to come over the weekend. The concert opened with San Jose’s Mariachi Azteca. They were joined by headliner Ersi Arvizu and her sister, Rosella Barraza, and niece Denise Herrera, performing as The Sisters, the Arvizus’ group from the 1960s. Barraza performed a solo with Mariachi Azteca that was one of the best things I heard at the festival. A colorful performance by the Sacramento dance group Raices formed the middle part of the concert and was a lot of fun to watch and very popular with the audience. Ersi Arvizu and her excellent band, including guitar great and producer Ry Cooder, performed a tight set of songs taken from her new CD, her days with El Chicano and her East L.A. childhood. She was joined by The Sisters for several of the numbers and the encore was a show stopper in more ways than one.
For me, the best event artistically was the gala concert at the SJSU Events Center on Saturday night, “Women of Mariachi,” that climaxed with rotating jaw-dropping performances by Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs and Aida Cuevas, celebrating the contributions to the ranchera style of mariachi from three great singers of the past: Lucha Reyes, Amalia Mendosa and Lola Beltran. Let me just say right here that these three ought to tour the world as the “Three Mariachi Divas.” They would easily knock those three Irish tenors right off their pedestals and the DVD would raise a fortune for PBS during pledge drives.
This gala concert was the culmination of the admirable musicological approach of Ronstadt in creating the “Tribute of the Decade” concert. It was also a chance for the younger generation who are learning the ropes to show off their stuff, and the stunning performance by 12-year-old singer Marco Del Rio, along with the young musicians who attended the educational workshops earlier in the week, proved that the genre will be in good hands in the future. Perfect, top-of-the-line performances from Mariachi Cobre and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano as well as San Jose’s Los Lupeños dance group came next, followed by a solo set from Aida Cuevas (the “Diva of Mariachi Music”), one of Mexico’s most famous and popular singers (she has released 26 CDs). And rightly so—her voice is exquisite and her choice of material fit perfectly with the evening’s theme. Her vocal control and wide range of nuance was evident in the well-chosen material presenting a diversity of emotion. Most of the audience members were fans and they sang along with almost every song.
Then came the incomparable Linda Ronstadt, the consummate professional whose vocal purity, control and strength are second to none. As well known as her voice is throughout the world, I think most of her fans would agree that the deployment of her unique singing style in all the genres she has worked in is always thoroughly informed by the diction and vocal style of mariachi. After many years of listening to her music, I only became aware of this after hearing her sing mariachi and it explained a lot to me. She was more than ably joined by Cuevas and the incredible Lila Downs (what a pair of lungs she has) in a roundtable of performances that elevated the simple form to high art. It was one of the best musical experiences I have ever had. The reason I know this is that there are no words to describe it. It left me speechless. If you were there, you know what I mean, and if you weren’t, then I hope they do go on the road together some day so you get the opportunity to hear what I mean.
If the Friday concert was the table of contents, the Sunday finale of the festival in and around Cesar Chavez Plaza was the index. While on the plaza stage there were a string of performances by some of the best mariachi groups in the world, a second stage on San Fernando Street featured Latin-influenced music of every size and shape. I especially enjoyed the River Band of Santa Cruz, three “troubadours” from the American Southwest, including Ronstadt’s brother Michael, performing songs from the border lands in several languages. The day and festival was brought to a close with a performance by Lila Downs and her talented band of multi-instrumentalists. It wasn’t an anti-climax either! Her music is a well-considered synthesis of Latin and American musical types, fused into an exciting cross-cultural platform for her powerful voice that is always perfectly controlled. (How does she gradually and smoothly modify her vibrato within each tone like that? I have never heard anything like it.)
This was truly a family event and it was wonderful to see all those thousands of people of all ages enjoying the day out in downtown San Jose. There wasn’t one wrong note the entire weekend. (The tacos, tamales and huaraches were pretty damn good too.) All I can say is it’s going to be a hard act to follow next year.