“But they're not playing them the same way that you might hear down on the River Walk. They're playing high-powered, really professional types of arrangements, and the music will shift from six-eight time to three-four, and then back again. With those types of changes in meter, if you're a classically trained musician trying to follow along, you're like, 'What the hell is going on?' So it's been a challenge to get the rhythms clean.”
Mariachi Vargas has long been the gold standard for mariachi musicians. The group's longevity is staggering: Formed as a four-piece in Tecatitlán, Jalisco, by the legendary Gaspar Vargas, the 104-year-old ensemble has recorded more than 50 albums, performed at presidential inaugurations and even taken mariachi music to the pyramids of Egypt.
More importantly, it has been the genre's premier innovators, expanding mariachi's format, technical approach and fan base. Before Mariachi Vargas emerged, the standard mariachi lineup consisted of two guitars and two violins. But Mariachi Vargas aimed for a bigger, more explosive sound, incorporating trumpets, a guitarron (which provided the bass), and extra violins and guitars. Eventually, a 12-piece ensemble became the norm for mariachis.
Mariachi Vargas also brought sophisticated, written arrangements to the genre without abandoning the folkloric tradition. The group introduced the by-now de rigeur charro suits to mariachi music, and it contributed several classic tunes to the mariachi catalog, most notably their 1968 hit “La Bikina.”
Roy Quintero, director of San Antonio's Mariachi Los Caporales, is an unabashed Vargas fan. In fact, his group's most recent CD, Corazon de Papel, pays tribute to Mariachi Vargas' current musical director, Jose “Pepe” Martinez. “I've seen three generations of Mariachi Vargas,” Quintero says. “They're great musicians, but what really sets them apart from any other group are the composers and the arrangers. Vargas laid the groundwork for everyone with their songs.”
Mariachi Vargas' collaboration with the UTSA Orchestra — as part of San Antonio's 8th annual Mariachi Extravaganza — is a continuation of the group's efforts to meld the folkloric style with classical musicians. They have performed for years with symphony orchestras around the world, but they only recently documented this synthesis on their album, Sinfonico, recorded with the Orquestra Sinfonica de Queretaro.
Such adventurous projects are helping mariachi music attain a new level of international respect and acceptance, a trend that should continue, according to Quintero.
“I see it expanding to another level, because it's offered now at universities and high schools and you have the younger generation that's going to keep the tradition alive,” he says. “Mariachi has been around for a long time; it's not a style of music that dies out, like Tejano or disco.”