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Local music teacher directs NMSU's mariachi group

Adorned in crimson and black uniforms, the musicians holding violins, guitars, trumpets, guitarrons, vihuelas and one flute are ready to perform. On cue, they begin playing with fervor, quickly falling into a rhythm unique to the sound of what the world calls mariachi.

Led by director Ruben Corona, this talented group is New Mexico State University's Mariachi Rio Bravo. Every Monday night, Corona, his wife Sylvia, and nine students meet at the NMSU Music Center for class and rehearsal. Rehearsal is a festive affair, since mariachi is never slow-paced and never somber.

Last semester alone Mariachi Rio Bravo was hired to play at more than nine functions, including the reception for United Farm Worker's co-founder Dolores Huerta. Corona said the most interesting place they performed was at a military conference at White Sands Missile Range.

"Military generals, colonels, and other ranking-officers from Washington, D.C., and California were present," Corona said.

Corona teaches community education at Dona Ana Branch Community College and music at public schools in Las Cruces and Hatch. He also teaches private lessons. His wife Sylvia, a lifelong singer, got involved with mariachi one year ago and immediately fell in love with it. "It's fun, exciting, and very unifying," she said.

Freshman bilingual education major Manuel Pacheco enjoys the way the group all works together. Pacheco was in mariachi in high school and Mariachi Rio Bravo has allowed him to continue to play the vihuela in college. A Taos-native, he hopes to teach in the future.

NMSU Aggie Pride Band member and psychology sophomore Tanya Martinez plays flute - a nontraditional instrument for mariachi. Also from Taos, Martinez said Corona convinced her to play for the Mariachi Rio Bravo during Pride Band practice. And although she's uncertain of what career path she will take, she hopes music will always be a part of her life.

Mariachi, as we know it today, is a relatively new form of music. But Patricia Harpole and Mark Fogelquist, authors of "Los Mariachis! An Introduction to Mariachi Music," trace its roots to southern Mexico, when in the 15th and 16th century the musical styles of the Aztec Indians, Spaniards and African slaves fused to form mestizo (mixed) music. Mestizo consisted of a harp, one or two violins, the vihuela and vocals. In the 1890s, the harp was replaced by the guitarron. The trumpet was added in the 1930s to enhance the sound of mariachi on radio broadcasts and records.

Vihuelas and guitarrons are variations of the standard guitar. Vihuelas are much smaller, and offer a quick percussive sound that allows mariachi to be danceable. On the contrary, guitarrons produce a very low sound and, according to the University of Michigan's Musical Heritage Network, function as the deepest "voice" in mariachi.

The origin of the name mariachi is still in debate. Some critics cite it is derived from the French word for wedding, "mariage." Others say it stems from the word "mariache," which refers to dances held on a raised platform.

Mariachi was originally taught "by ear," meaning without written music. But according to Corona, mariachi is being taught more frequently with sheet music.

"Doing so allows for two groups of different experiences to play more effectively in support of extremely talented solo singers," Corona said.

Corona said that Mariachi Rio Bravo may consider recording an album in the near future.

NMSU student Sara Perez is a member of NMSU's Mariachi Rio Bravo.

NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan

Members of NMSU's Mariachi Rio Bravo are Ephraim Ford, guitarron; Luis Quinones, guitarron; Tanya Martinez, flute; Sara Perez, violin; Chris Trujillo, violin; Rene Salazar, violin; Ruben Corona, trumpet; Marcos Torres, trumpet; Manuel Pacheco, vihuela; Frank Arias, vihuela; Sylvia Corona, guitar; and Melissa Tafoya, guitar.

Mariachi Rio Bravo can be contacted through NMSU's Chicano Programs at (505) 646-4206.

Joy Victory