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Before Ronstadt, Trio Calaveras Made Mariachi Famous

Times Staff Writer

Last year, it was Linda Ronstadt who breathed new life into a whole set of Mexican period pieces, taking her mariachi show across the country and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of her Spanish-language album, “Canciones de mi Padre” (Songs of My Father).

Tonight, a 52-year-old group that first popularized some of the decades-old folks songs and ballads that Ronstadt has popularized will make its first Orange County appearance in a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Good Time Theatre.

The group--Trio Calaveras--is “an absolute cultural institution” in Mexico, said Mark Fogelquist, who studied traditional Mexican music at UCLA in the 1970s and now heads his own successful mariachi in Orange.

“We’re originals, we’re not like anyone else,” said Calaveras founding member Raul Prado by phone from his home in Mexico City. “We play in a pure style, and we have the good fortune to still be a force. The people know our repertoire. . . . It is varied, sweet and very strong.”

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The Trio Calaveras, Fogelquist said, was one of the earliest groups to establish the trio romantico as a popular form. Along with mariachis, the group took traditional folk styles from different parts of Mexico and helped shape what has become the country’s most recognizable music.

The group’s popularity exploded in the 1940s when it appeared in 18 films with singing and screen idol Jorge Negrete.

“They were creating a national culture,” Fogelquist said of the Mexican films and musicians of the 1930s and ‘40s. Mexico’s president, Lazaro Cardenas, “was interested in fostering native artistic expressions. . . . He promoted Mexican films with national themes featuring music, dance and traditional Mexican village scenes. They were trying to promote a Mexican rather than a European culture.”

It was an era that saw both mariachis and trios gain enormous popularity. But while the two ensemble-types perform many of the same songs-- sones (syncopated, African-influenced folk songs), slow, romantic boleros and haunting huapangos from eastern Mexico--their sounds are entirely different.

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A full-scale mariachi may feature as many as a dozen musicians, with trumpets, violins, a harp, bass and a couple of guitars providing a shower of music below a full chorus of voices, often punctuated by gritos , or yells.

A trio romantico is composed only of two guitars and a requinto (a small, higher-pitched guitar), and the three players sing softly, sometimes sustaining drawn-out falsettos, in complex, shimmering harmonies.

While some trios have adopted a more commercial style and perform songs out of the traditional Mexican repertoire, the Trio Calaveras has remained an exponent of pure folk music.

“I remember hearing them as a kid,” said Teddy Fregoso, owner of the Rosarito, Baja California-based radio station XPRS. “They were the huapango kings. . . . We still play them on the air. I don’t even know why they are still singing, but they still sound good.”

Two members of the Trio Calaveras--guitarists Prado and Miguel Bermejo--are now in their 70s and have been with the group since its inception in 1936.

Jose (Pepe) Zaldivar Pacheco, a requinto- player, is the third member. He replaced Bermejo’s brother Guillermo, who died in 1975.

The group still performs six nights a week at a club in Mexico City and recently recorded its 50th-anniversary album.

The concert is being promoted by Will Clauson, an internationally acclaimed folk singer during the 1950s and ‘60s who now works as the “Singing Sheriff” at Knott’s. Clauson met the trio members during a tour in Spain in 1956 and decided to bring them to Orange County when he bumped into Prado last year in Mexico City, he said.

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“Why don’t we know about them here?” Clauson asked. “There shouldn’t be borders on culture.”


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