SMC students sing, strum to honor mariachi tradition

A musical odyssey ongoing for hundreds of years has landed on the Westside, providing opportunities for both students and local festivals.

The Santa Monica College Mariachi Ensemble recently finished its second year as a program, performing the music made famous in western Mexico in the 18th and 19th centuries. Holding courses at Santa Monica High School, the class merges Samohi students, SMC students and adults together to pay respects to Latino heritage.

“Music kind of offers a way to honor and learn about one’s culture, and it just bridges generations … the music itself, I just find it to be very lovely and very unique, and it’s just been … fun to teach,” SMC mariachi instructor Mary Alfaro said.

The idea was first born as a youth ensemble at Virginia Avenue Park, evolving into a partnership between SMC, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica Youth Orchestra. One of the first instructors brought on board for the endeavor was Guillermo “Willie” Acuña, the harpist for Grammy Award-nominated group Mariachi Sol de México de José Hernández. Acuña took on the challenge in order to bring the mariachi tradition to Santa Monica and neighboring cities.

“Los Angeles is sort of a Mecca for mariachi music in the United States, except (for) the Westside … this is the first time it makes it up to the Westside,” Acuña said.

In the classic mariachi spirit, all students (ranging from ages 14 to 65) must participate both with their singing voice and their chosen instrument. Samohi students that complete the course receive college credit for their efforts. The class joins together to sing choruses, while select soloists are chosen for parts in verses. Exercising the lungs is also a lesson in self-confidence, Alfaro noted.

“When you go to a gig, pretty much everybody sings in the mariachi, and some (kids), they can be a little shy or self-conscious,” she said. “(But) a lot of kids have stepped to the plate, they’ve been very brave in taking that step of putting themselves out there.”

Mariachi instruments like violins and trumpets are in the mix for the class, though many instead choose a guitar, such as the high-pitched vihuela and the acoustic bass guitarrón, due to just joining into a music ensemble for the first time. The guitar technique, Alfaro added, involves much strumming in a rhythmic manner, a good way to get students up to speed.

Acuña stressed that the class finds material that is “the right balance” for skill levels, making songs appropriate for beginners while still challenging more advanced players. Overall, however, effort is more important to the ensemble than technical mastery.

“We just asked them to really give it their all because (we) tell them that this music is something that is bigger than all of us, it’s been around longer than any of us has been alive … you’re representing an entire culture, an entire group of people that have come and gone,” Acuña said.

The final component is combining singing and strumming in an appealing manner, as Alfaro explained that “a big part of mariachi is bringing the party.” The ensemble has played at numerous live events, making stage aura key.

“In mariachi, it’s important to do it in a way that engages the crowd,” Alfaro said. “So students starting out, they can be a little stiff … we (try) to get them to loosen up and have good stage presence, so that’s also a big part of the class.”

Performances substitute the typical midterm or final exam, such as a recent showing at the Pico Branch Library’s 10th Anniversary celebration. The shows give students crucial experience, while also giving the Westside a new group on-call for top-notch celebrations. Even those who don’t keep up with the genre have appreciated what the SMC ensemble has brought.

“Folks who aren’t familiar with (mariachi), it’s something new to their ears, and I think everyone in the community is really, really latched on to this group,” Acuña said.

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