If you’ve ever heard mariachi music, then you’ve probably heard “el grito,” that expressive cry sometimes described as “laughing and crying at the same time.” Short or long, low or high, comical or soulfully serious, “el grito” is a staple of mariachi musical expression, capable of capturing in a single sound both the joys and sorrows of the human experience.
On Sunday, the Wilkinson Public Library, in partnership with Telluride Arts, will host a community celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month with live performances by Mariachi San Jose, a mariachi group from Grand Junction. Free and open to the public, the ensemble will play two hour-long shows at the Transfer Warehouse at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. To reserve seats, registration through the library website allows for seating in “pods” of one to four people; masks may be removed once seated in the venue.
“We are excited to have the whole community to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with Mariachi San Jose,” said Laura Colbert, adult programs specialist at the Wilkinson Public Library. “It's a special treat to be able to catch live, traditional Mexican music in Telluride. It often feels like there are parallel Tellurides with the non-Lantinx community not having a chance to socialize with the Latinx community as much as everyone might like, and we hope this is a chance for everyone to have some fun together, safely distanced, of course.”
Mariachi San Jose was founded in 2005 by then-college student Javier de los Santos, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, while he was studying guitar performance at Colorado Mesa University. Though de los Santos grew up with the traditional Mexican folk music, he wasn’t initially a big fan, preferring to play in the classical rondalla style, with up to 14 guitarists in a tradition hailing from medieval Spain.
“I was also in a rock band, but mariachi music I was like, ‘Nope,’” de los Santos recalled.
However, the winds of his musical taste began to shift as he studied music professionally, diving into the complex rhythms of mariachi music and discovering that he actually enjoyed playing it. For a school project, he began arranging traditional mariachi music, got a few friends to volunteer to play it, and the fledgling group performed their first concert in 2006 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Grand Junction. The show was a hit.
“The fun part was that the priest of the church sang with us,” he said with a chuckle.
The group now plays regularly throughout the area, often for festive events like weddings, quinceañeras and birthdays, with tight vocal harmonies, violins, trumpets and traditional mariachi guitars, the vihuela and the guitarrón, enlivening celebrations with the traditional music.
The roots of the folk music genre run deep, trailing all the way to the early 16th century when Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, bringing with them the early prototypes of the vihuela and the harp, which are often used in the music today. Enslaved people from Africa arrived on the continent soon thereafter, carrying their own vibrant musical traditions, and the skilled musicians of Mexico’s indigenous cultures began to master the new musical instruments. Mariachi as we know it today originated in the Western states of Mexico, though a definitive town of origin has remained elusive. From the beginning, it was music made for dancing and festivities. One legend has it that the word mariachi comes from the French word for wedding, “mariage,” during the period in which France temporarily crowned an emperor of Mexico and ruled the country in the 1860s.
One of the oldest and most renowned mariachi groups, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, was founded in 1897, and remains to this day one of the most beloved mariachi music groups of all time. Though the members have changed, the band has continued playing mariachi music to the present day.
“We still learn from them, we all take from their music,” de los Santos said of the storied ensemble.
As for Sunday, don’t be afraid to get up and dance, albeit while staying in your seating pod, of course.
“I get so much enjoyment out of playing this music, that I get a chance to share it, and I love when people stand up and dance,” de los Santos said.
de los Santos, who is a professional classical guitarist and a professor, is also passionate about teaching. He teaches guitar to 40 students at middle schools in Grand Junction and is planning mariachi workshops for next year.