A timeless tradition in ‘Mariachi’

Times Staff Writer

In Southern California, we tend to take our mariachis for granted. These lively Mexican ensembles serve as background music for restaurant meals or as backup bands for singing stars.

But for 10 days every year, hundreds of mariachi musicians become the center of a round-the-clock celebration of this proud musical tradition in Guadalajara, the graceful capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, where mariachi music comes from. Bands from as far away as Cuba and Croatia converge there to perform in beautiful settings -- a plaza outside Guadalajara’s historic cathedral, inside the city’s oldest tequila bar, or on a symphony stage strewn with rose petals in the classy Teatro Degollado.

For all of us who missed the ninth annual International Mariachi Festival last September, the event’s thrilling performances are captured in a two-hour television program, “Mariachi: The Spirit of Mexico,” which airs this Cinco de Mayo weekend on KCET (tonight at 7 and Sunday at 2 p.m.) and KOCE (tonight at 8 and 10 and Sunday at 3 p.m.).

This is less a documentary than a live music video, featuring more than two dozen songs by some of the best mariachis in the world, prominently including L.A.'s own Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.


As such, the excellent camera work is much more important than the narration, graciously handled by Spanish opera star and mariachi-lover Placido Domingo, who performs the closing number.

Produced by New York PBS station WLIW in association with KCET, the program purports to “explore the history of the mariachi.” But it actually delivers only a vague and rudimentary primer on the genre, even avoiding the always-posed question about the genesis of the word “mariachi.” (A CD and DVD or VHS tape of the program, with additional music and interviews, will be offered as part of KCET’s pledge drive.)

At times, the program plays like a travelogue, perhaps befitting its sponsorship by state and national boards of Mexican tourism. We’re taken to lovely Lake Chapala and the towns of Tequila and Cocula, the believed birthplace of mariachi.

But the heart and soul of this show are the timeless songs, several performed in their entirety. The musicianship is virtuoso, as are the many fine featured vocalists. The bands from outside Mexico, especially Cuba’s multiracial Real Jalisco, hold their own against revered institutions such as the Mariachi Vargas and Mariachi America.