The Galveston Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert Sunday will include a performance by a Mariachi band. The symphony’s music director, Trond Saeverud, talked about the program.
Q: For those of us who don’t know, what’s a Mariachi band? Please tell us a little about the genre.
A: Well, I must admit that I knew nothing about Mariachi music before experiencing the wonderful players at Salsa’s restaurant on the seawall. Normally, I am really upset when there is inescapable music in public spaces, and often get so stressed that I cover my ears — but this was different! Those guys are great! My wife and I used to go there on Sundays after Galveston Symphony Orchestra concerts. It was the only music we could take after an intense performance of our own.
I remember now that my grandfather, a Norwegian composer, visited Mexico and was enthralled by the music in local restaurants and bars — could not tear himself away and stayed up all night listening. Similar experiences are told about Copland and other major 20th century composers.
From the little I have learned, it seems that Mariachi music developed in Western Mexico as a result of several styles, many of them European, such as polka and waltz — but with a unique Mexican sound that has become an important element of national pride and cultural heritage — for example, in movies, where it is often associated with machismo (and tequila).
In Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza, as many as 4,000 players may perform within one weekend. The traditional outfits are elaborate, colorful, very demanding to create — and the players are highly trained virtuosos with a huge repertoire so they can respond immediately to special requests.
In some ways, the Mariachi bands, on this continent, have had a role similar to that of Gypsy ensembles in Eastern Europe — a style that is also highly sophisticated and virtuoso, inspiring many famous composers.
Q: What about the instruments? Some scholars say that, when the Spanish arrived, they found the indigenous peoples of Mexico playing drums and flutes, but that the musicians quickly adapted European instruments, including trumpets, guitars and violins. How flexible is a Mariachi band? Are only certain instruments allowed?
A: The European instruments were quickly assimilated, and the inclusion of trumpets is often seen as a crucial moment. Today, a typical band includes violins, trumpets and two types of guitars: vihuela and guitarron.
Q: Tell us about the band from Texas City High School. How did you decide to include them in the program?
A: Some years ago, I enjoyed visiting with Joseph Figarelli, Texas City Independent School District’s director of performing and visual arts, and he told me about their wonderful Mariachi band. I have tried several times to invite them to join us in Galveston, and we are very happy that this is finally happening. Mariachi Director Benjamin Guillotte is bringing 17 of his best players! It is such a special experience to hear them play, bringing us to a different time and place, and when combined with the ambience of The Grand 1894 Opera House, I think this will be a magical moment. Please join us!