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Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán

Restoring the Legacy of Lucha Reyes

There are famous country singers, like Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn, whose songs reflect the struggles and hardships they experienced in real life. More than celebrities, they become folk heroes, because people sense authenticity in their artistry. The same is true for singer Lucha Reyes, a pioneer in Mexican ranchera music. Known for her bravado, her forceful voice and her hard-drinking ways, Reyes became a popular sensation in the 1930s as a solo singer, often backed by the legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

And yet the Reyes legacy is not widely known, especially among younger music fans. Many would easily recognize her contemporaries: Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante or Lola Beltran. But as OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano wrote, “only abuelitas and tías can fully appreciate – or even remember—Reyes.” (Arellano ranked Reyes No. 11 on his list, “The 20 Greatest Ranchera Singers of All Time.”)

I must admit, I was among those who overlooked Reyes and her special role in the history of the music. Until, that is, I started researching her life and career for her biography, recently posted on this site. Soon, I was immersed in the tragedy of her life and the triumph of her art.

Reyes would have turned 100 this year. After her tragic suicide in 1944, her memory was overshadowed by stars who followed in her footsteps. She was marginalized, culturally and historically.

Subsequently, there have been efforts to restore Reyes to her proper place in the Mexican music pantheon. We have seen books, biographies, news articles, a full-length movie, a mini-documentary on Televisa and a docudrama on Mexican radio. For a good overview of these Reyes reassessment efforts, check out this essay by Sergio de la Mora, a Chicano studies professor at UC Davis.

In Mexico, the Reyes revival has been spearheaded by avant-garde performer Astrid Hadad, both on record and on the stage. In 2012, the Mexico City daily Excelsior reported on an effort to restore the home and neighborhood where Reyes died – Andalucía No. 86 in the Colonia Álamos. And in Los Angeles, the public memory of Reyes has been kept alive almost singlehandedly by her biographer, Nazib Fauntel, who pushed to have a statue erected and a street named in her honor at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. In this YouTube video, you can see Fauntel addressing the audience at the dedication of Avenida Lucha Reyes, briefly explaining her importance to the music and the culture.

Some have come to see Reyes as a martyr in the fight against machismo.

“We are witnessing the recovery and rescue of mythic feminist figures, such as Frida, Nahui Ollin, María Antonieta Rivas Mercado, and most recently, Lucha Reyes,” composer and music critic José Antonio Alcaraz told Proceso, the Mexican magazine. “They are all part of the same spectrum, in which Lucha Reyes is the woman obstinately devoted to the struggle against the role assigned to her by society. It’s a struggle which she wins, but at the cost of her life.”

Read the full biography here.

              – Agustín Gurza

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Maestro Rubén Fuentes Turns 90

In all genres of music, we always find talented people behind the scenes who are far more influential than they are famous. In jazz and R&B, think Quincy Jones. In the case of The Beatles, think George Martin. 
 
And when it comes to Mexican music, think Rubén Fuentes, the composer, arranger, and producer, who over the course of a half century left his unmistakable stamp on Mexico’s most emblematic pop music style, the mariachi. Though he has worked with the biggest names in the field and has written some of the genre’s best-known songs, even the most ardent mariachi fans may not recognize Fuentes’s name.
 
Fuentes himself may be to blame for his own low profile. He tends to avoid the spotlight and notoriously shuns interviews, according to mariachi musician and historian Jonathan Clark, a contributor to this site. The maestro can be curt, verging on anti-social. When famed mariachi director Nati Cano, of the Los Angeles-based Los Camperos, organized a concert in tribute to Fuentes at UCLA some years back, Clark recalls, the guest of honor did not attend. 
 
While he may not have the household name of artists with whom he has worked – legendary figures such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Miguel Aceves Mejía, for example – Fuentes has an immense reputation in the recording industry. He is a musician’s musician. 
 
“He’s definitely a genius,” Clark told me recently. “In my opinion, he is the most important musical figure in the entire history of mariachi music.”
 
Last month, Fuentes celebrated his 90th birthday at his home in Mexico City, surrounded by friends, well-wishers and, of course, a houseful of musicians, Clark included. Playing at the party was none other than the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the fabled ensemble that Fuentes has now worked with steadily for 72 years. He joined as a violinist in 1944 and is now the group’s general director.
 
And he’s still writing the band’s arrangements, like the complex and unusual piece, a poem set to music, which made its debut at his party. The performance of that song was the icing on the cake of this birthday celebration.
 
“The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of maestro Fuentes’ latest composition, an unorthodox canción ranchera titled ‘El Amor Tiene Tres Tiempos,’ with lyrics by Irma Cue,” Clarke writes in a blog for the website MariachiMusic.com. “The coauthor, who was a guest that night, was elated to hear her free verse poem so masterfully set to music and performed.”
 
Now in its sixth incarnation, Mariachi Vargas started work on a new studio album this month (March). The album will include the new song, which was a challenge to arrange musically because the lyrics are written in free verse. 
 
“I recently had the opportunity to watch the maestro prepare the score for ‘El Amor Tiene Tres Tiempos’ with his copyist,” recalls Clark. “His piano playing is a little rusty these days, and his music handwriting isn't quite as steady as it used to be, but I’m happy to say that the genius that earned him the reputation of being the most important composer-arranger in the history of mariachi music is still very much intact. And his attention to detail is second to none."
 
Somewhat surprisingly, a search for the musician’s work in the Frontera Collection does not yielded as many recordings as one might expect, considering his volume of work over so many decades with so many top stars. That may be partly a function of the way songs are credited. All 219 of his compositions in the archive are credited to Fuentes along with one of many co-writers. Of those, 44 are by the song-writing duo of Vargas-Fuentes, referring to his long-time collaborator and mariachi founder Silvestre Vargas. Complete results appear by entering last name, first initial: Vargas, S. or Fuentes, R.) 
 
As usual, producer and arranger credits do not reliably appear on record labels, especially 78-rpm and 45-rpm discs. Fuentes does get producer credit on the mariachi LP that is perhaps best known by North American music fans, Linda Ronstadt's Grammy-winning “Canciones de Mi Padre.”
 
In the music industry, there is a well-known controversy that Fuentes allegedly took credit for other people’s work. That issue will be explored in a full bio of the musician, coming soon..  
 
Meanwhile, says Clark, there is no doubt about the maestro’s lifelong contribution in “rescuing, arranging, and popularizing” what is considered Mexico’s most important folk music tradition.
 
                                                                                                                         --Agustín Gurza

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Celebrating the Sideman: Rigoberto Mercado

In rock music, fans are often on a first-name basis with band members, like John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In salsa during the boom of the 1970s, fans started demanding musician credits on every album because, as with jazz, they followed the sidemen sometimes as much as the featured front.
 
But in mariachi music, the accomplished musicians who play and record with famous bands often go unheralded. Fans frequently know superstar vocalists or band directors, such as Silvestre Vargas and Pepe Villa, whose mariachis carry their names.  But credits are often missing for even the best violinists, trumpet players, and guitarists in a mariachi, including those who play for decades with the same ensemble.
 
So when a veteran mariachi musician is singled out and recognized for his contributions, the honor is all the more noteworthy. This month, fans and colleagues paid tribute to trumpet player Rigoberto Mercado, a member of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán for more than a quarter century. The native of Tequila, Jalisco, was honored during the 21st annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, which took place in San Antonio, Texas, November 15-21. The mission of the event, organized by promoter Cynthia Muñoz, is to showcase artists who have made significant contributions to the mariachi genre.
 
Mercado first joined the Mariachi Vargas in 1966. He went on to make scores of individual recordings with the band, mostly uncredited, as well as hundreds more as an anonymous accompanist for some of the greatest singers in the genre. But it’s almost impossible to know which songs or which albums he actually played on, according to Jonathan Clark, a mariachi musician and historian.
 
“Probably far less than 1 percent of mariachi recordings credit the individual musicians,” says Clark, who authored the section on mariachi music for the book about the UCLA archive, The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings. “I think there have been only two albums in Mariachi Vargas’ history that do this.”
 
Some determined fans have tried to identify musicians they recognize from album covers, but that’s also unreliable.
 
“The problem is that often the musicians on the covers don’t coincide with those who actually made the recordings, or only partly coincide,” explains Clark. “Many of these LPs were assembled from different sessions, often years apart and featuring different players.”
 
Clark has helpfully put together a list of recordings on which Mercado is known to have performed. The list appears at the end of his recent blog about Mercado and his Mariachi Extravaganza tribute, posted at Muñoz’ website, MariachiMusic.com.
 
Many of those albums are included among the band’s many recordings represented in the Frontera Collection, found under variations of the name Mariachi Vargas and/or Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán
 
A specific search in the Frontera database by the trumpeter’s name yields a list of seven tracks, all from the group’s 75th anniversary album, LXXV Aniversario (Arcano DKL1-3251), a collection of mariachi standards. This is the U.S. version of the same album originally released in 1973 by RCA Mexico (RCA Victor MKS-1977) and features a total of 11 tracks.
 
Since the tracks emphasize instrumentals, the virtuosity of individual musicians is clearly on display, such as on “Las Alazanas” or “Alma Llanera.” Here, Mercado shares trumpet credits with his longtime collaborator Federico Torres Martinez. The album frequently showcases their horn section, which was tight, bright, and memorably harmonious. Says Clark: “The combination of Federico Torres (on first) and Rigoberto Mercado (on second) was the most stable and enduring trumpet duet Mariachi Vargas has had to date.”
 
Interestingly, this album not only credits the musicians but shows their pictures on the back cover. On my private copy of the Mexican RCA release, the musicians’ portraits are arrayed along the edges and bathed in primary colors. Mercado’s pink picture shows him in a formal pose holding his trumpet, identified by his full name, Rigoberto Mercado Alvarez. His partner’s picture in blue is just below his.
 
In addition to being celebrated, at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Mercado delivered a presentation during the Director’s Workshop, attended by mariachi directors from throughout the region. Appropriately, the title of his lecture was “Secretos a Voces: Frequently Overlooked Details that Distinguish a Superior Mariachi.” 
 
One of those secrets, of course, is the unheralded sideman.
 
-Agustín Gurza

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