In its first five years, the giant Mariachi USA Festival has attracted most of the big names in the world of mariachi. This weekend, the sixth version of the Hollywood Bowl extravaganza brings in a singer who did not discover the traditional music of Mexico until just two years ago. And she hails from Chiba.
No, that is not a town in the Southwest or somewhere in Mexico, but 6,000 miles away--in Japan.
And although the open-air concerts Saturday and Sunday will again feature top mariachi groups and solo artist Angeles Ochoa of Mexico, the big crowd pleaser could well be 24-year-old Junko Seki.
Consider her recent performance at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference. Appearing with Mariachi Cobre, Seki was the big surprise of the conference's concert, which also featured L.A.'s Los Camperos de Nati Cano and singer Aida Cuevas, an established star in Mexico.
For Seki, the Tucson concert in late April was an important milestone in a quest to be a professional mariachi. The quest continues this weekend.
Seki said she "became enchanted with mariachi music" during a visit two years ago to Epcot Center in Florida, where she heard Mariachi Cobre perform. She took a Cobre tape back with her to Japan and listened to it every day. "I first learned the words to 'El Balaju' and then memorized other songs," the dynamic singer said. Seki had studied Spanish in Japanese schools, but learning those songs was quite a feat.
A year ago, she returned to Epcot Center to work at the Japanese Pavilion. At every opportunity, Seki would go listen to Mariachi Cobre, the resident musical group at Epcot's Mexican Pavilion.
But Seki not only listened, she sang along. Randy Carrillo, director of Mariachi Cobre, was surprised to see a Japanese woman in the audience's front row, singing every word with them. Carrillo met with Seki and was amazed at her musical ability. Since then, Cobre musicians have instructed her on mariachi technique and looked for opportunities to put her on stage.
A year ago, she flew on her own to Mexico, where Cobre was appearing at the first Guadalajara Mariachi Festival. Carrillo decided to let her sing "La Charreada" with his group. The result was thundering applause, not only for Seki's rich rendition but also for her stirring shout: Arriba Jalisco!
After receiving a standing ovation, "Junko was so happy she cried for hours and hours," Carrillo recalled. "Junko is living proof of the beauty and influence of mariachi. Mariachi has spread worldwide."
Seki's story illustrates her personal determination, but it also tells much about the willingness of established musicians to teach the art and tradition of mariachi to a new generation.
In fact, that educational component is what distinguishes the Tucson conference and others like it that have sprouted up across the Southwest. Because of these conferences and a growing interest to incorporate the music in school curricula, the number of mariachi groups is soaring.
"It's phenomenal and very gratifying--the number of younger mariachi groups that now exist," said Carrillo, who said his group looks forward to again appearing at Mariachi USA. "There may be a couple of hundred of them in the U.S. and my estimate could be low."
In the late 1970s, Carrillo went to a San Antonio mariachi event to learn from Mexican music legend Ruben Fuentes. Carrillo persuaded Fuentes to bring his renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan to the first Tucson Mariachi Conference in 1983. Since then, it has become the longest-running mariachi event in the country.
These conferences provide inspiration and practical instruction--not only for the students but for the group leaders as well, said Adolfo Martinez, director of Mariachi Olimpico, made up of students from Roosevelt High School and Belvedere Junior High in Los Angeles--one of six mariachi groups based at local public schools. Several others have been formed by young musicians on their own.
After taking his mariachi to Tucson on three occasions, Martinez is going to a similar session this summer in El Paso, Tex.--only the latest mariachi conference that offers an educational component. Others include San Jose, Fresno, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, N.M. Mariachi events that feature concerts only include Las Vegas, Phoenix and Mariachi USA at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Tucson conference has been one way for Mariachi Cobre to give back to its hometown. Nearly all of Cobre's members have been together since they started out in a teen mariachi group humorously known as Los Changitos Feos (the Ugly Little Monkeys). Now, Mariachi Cobre is 24 years old and world-class.
Mariachi Cobre was invited to perform at Epcot in 1982 and has been based there ever since. The group's new CD, "Este Es Mi Mariachi," features two duets by Steve Carrillo with another Tucson native, Linda Ronstadt.
Along with Mariachi Cobre, this weekend's festival will again include a local favorite, Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez, along with Mariachi La Reyna de Los Angeles, an all-female group; Mariachi Los Gavilanes de Juan Cortez, another local group; and Mariachi Campanas de America from San Antonio.
For Junko Seki, the concert represents another step in what has become a living dream for her. Randy Carrillo sees a bright future for the mariachi from Chiba. Seki is certainly a novelty, he says, "but she also has a pure and natural voice and an uncanny sense of mariachi."
* Mariachi USA takes place Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Hollywood Bowl. Tickets, $12.50-$125, are available through Ticketmaster.