By Robert Cyr
The Mariachi Academy of Wallingford tuned up their instruments briefly in a side room before taking the stage at Hartford Hospital’s Toy Drive last week. After some brief talk, they launched into a traditional festival song that soon attracted groups of people drawn to the intoxicating music.
The academy, a group of 10 Mariachis and four chorus singers – mostly under the age of 10 – got a lot of attention before they even took the stage at the benefit, hosted by El Show de Analeh and State Farm at the hospital’s resource center on Hudson Street. While guests came in from the cold and dark December night, the band getting ready evoked warmer climes and a different mood filled the conference hall.
“As soon as I heard what students could do, I thought it was incredible,” said Maria Harlow, executive director of the Spanish Community of Wallingford (SCOW), a nonprofit group helping area Latinos with education and other government assistance services, is now home to the mariachis, all Latino musicians between the ages of 7 and 16 who are at risk. Harlow said she met the academy’s director, Evangeline Mendoza, two years ago while Mendoza gave a music lesson to children at the Wallingford public library.
Mendoza, a classically trained musician, was giving lessons to students in a now-defunct music school in downtown Wallingford. When the school shut down, Harlow asked Mendoza and her students to join SCOW in their facility near Wallingford’s senior center. “Having that music at SCOW was a no-brainer,” Harlow said.
But the Mariachi Academy http://www.scowinc.org/new_scow/music.html didn’t exist yet, Mendoza said. When she moved to SCOW, Mendoza had three students: 16 -year -old Jonathan Gonzales, Daisy Lopez, and her sister, Yvette. The trio was taking private lessons for guitar, violin and keyboard when the Lopez sisters – of Mexican heritage – suggested forming a Mariachi program. As a bonus, the Lopez sisters’ father, Evrerado Lopez, was a Mariachi aficianado and helped guide the group toward what they eventually became: a group of Mariachis in traditional garb, playing traditional Mexican songs on traditional Mexican instruments.
After Mendoza bought the violin, guitarrón, vihuela, guitar and trumpet, she partnered with the Mariachi Academy of New York City, which provides free instruction with tutors who travel from the city to help the Wallingford Mariachis, she said.
“There’s nothing else like Mariachi music,” Mendoza said. “It’s very traditional and uses four-part harmonies. It gets everyone involved. It’s different from other Latino groups because there’s no percussion, and it’s all acoustic.”
Daisy Lopez, who learned to play guitar and violin in about a year under Mendoza’s tutelage, is a calm, upbeat teenager. She primarily plays violin now after switching from guitar over a year ago. Her violin still has the tape-marks to remind her where her fingers go. But while she plays the notes ring clear, and like the other nine teens in her group – she plays with confidence and elán.
“Some people don’t know much about other cultures – especially teenagers,” she said. “When people hear us, like friends from school, they’re always very surprised.”
Gonzales, like Lopez, said he enjoys traveling to perform with the Mariachis to perform for friends and family all over the state. The group has several concerts coming up, including a show Dec. 12 at St. Peter’s Church in Wallingford. Gonzales, who is able to pay several instruments, said he had to switch to violin when his braces prevented him from playing the trumpet any longer.
“I think the first thing people notice, when they see us in person, is that Mariachi music is very lively,” he said. “That always surprises people. So whenever you hear it, it makes you feel good.”
Photos (c) Robert Cyr