Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Women’s Mariachi Band Sings Its Way Through Traditional Male Turf

New York Times
April 1, 2008
A Women’s Mariachi Band Sings Its Way Through Traditional Male Turf

LOS ANGELES — In “Compañeras,” a documentary about the female mariachi band Reyna de Los Angeles, one of the members explains why she is loath to see mariachi music as work.

“Personally, I don’t want to say: ‘Ugh! I have to go play today,’ ” says Sylvia Hinojosa, a violinist. “I want to say: ‘Yes! I’m playing today! I want to have a break from my school. I am going to have a break from my husband. I’m going to have a break from my house chores. I’m going to get away and be with the girls and play.’ That’s where it is for us.”

That so many of Reyna’s members regard the band more as a passionate hobby than a job may help explain why professional female mariachi bands are not as numerous as their male counterparts. But as portrayed in “Compañeras” — which is to be shown as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens” on April 4 in New York (April 1 in the rest of the country; check local listings) — marriage, motherhood and meager pay also get in the way.

But the operative word here is passionate. The women bring such power and feeling to this 19th-century Mexican tradition that audiences can only assume they know what they’re singing about when they plead for the return of a lover or berate him for his drinking, betrayals and assorted misbehavior.

“I want a man, not a potbellied macho,” goes one song in Reyna’s repertory.

Mariachi bands have commonly featured women as singers, but all-female ensembles like Reyna, formed in 1994 in Los Angeles and believed to be one of the first such mariachi bands north of the border, have been rare. Some of the women in the documentary mention the excuses that have been used to keep women from tarnishing the music’s aura of machismo. A common one, says one member, is that the guitarrón, an acoustic bass, is too heavy for women.

But the music is thriving among both male and female students in high schools and colleges around the country, and “Compañeras” notes that more than 20 female professional groups have been formed in the United States since Reyna began.

The film’s producer-directors, Elizabeth Massie and Matthew Buzzell, said in an interview that they stumbled across the band in the early 2000s when they passed through Union Station, the landmark Los Angeles railway station, while the women were giving a Mother’s Day performance. The filmmakers then set out to explore the female interpretation of a male-dominated genre.

The creator of Reyna is José Hernández, founder and musical director of the Grammy-nominated all-male ensemble Mariachi Sol de México. Mr. Hernández, who composes for both his mariachi bands, also owns Cielito Lindo Restaurant in South El Monte, east of Los Angeles, where both Sol de México and Reyna de Los Angeles play regularly.

Mr. Hernandez assembled the female group after starting mariachi classes for children in Los Angeles public schools in the early 1990s. Half the students who showed up were girls.

“They didn’t really have any role models,” he says in the documentary.

Soon he was holding auditions for a women’s band, drawing mostly high school students and amateurs whose love for the music ran through generations of their families. As it turned out, the most experienced of the lot was not a Latina: she was Cindy Reifler, a classically trained violinist from Santa Cruz who had played with a male mariachi band for years and became Reyna’s first leader.

True to the music’s itinerant peasant roots, the 13 women donned cowboy “charro” skirt suits and swept up their hair in buns. Some married, some single, and ranging in age from 16 to 42, Reyna’s members bonded into a tight-knit group. As the documentary’s title suggests, they are compañeras.

“When you tell your friend secrets, and she tells you her secrets and her problems, that’s not a friend, that’s a compañera,” Laura Paloma Córdova, who plays the harp, explains in the film.

The women felt so strongly about protecting their vibe that when two candidates auditioned for an open slot, they rejected the obviously better musician in favor of a younger, less experienced one, 19-year-old Angélica Gómez, whose dream of joining a mariachi band is one of the main stories in the film.

“The girls said it was her attitude, but I think they were intimidated,” Karla Tovar, a band member who plays the guitarrón and who had favored hiring the experienced player, says in the film.

Other women counter that a group with no soloist — they take turns singing — has no room for a prima donna. And as Mariana Nañez, who plays the signature mariachi five-stringed vihuela, says on camera, “When you go out onstage and you all had a really good talk and you bonded, it comes out in the music.”

Camaraderie can get the female players only so far. While mariachi music generates more than $100 million in records sales each year, according to “Compañeras,” the genre relies heavily on live performances. Touring — in theaters and arenas, and at festivals and county fairs — along with nightly gigs at restaurants and private parties are hard to balance with child care needs and second jobs. And the low pay, about $75 a night when the film was made, seems hardly a reason to abandon school, day jobs or families for the music.

“We have a hard time selling the group,” Mr. Hernández says in the film. “We’re lucky if we get half the amount of the money we charge for Sol.”

Still, American audiences have been receptive not just to all-female mariachi bands but also to co-ed bands, multiethnic bands and those that tweak the form to sing English-language standards like “New York, New York.”

“When mariachi is offered as a class in American schools, there is no sex barrier whatsoever,” said Jeff Nevin, director of mariachi activities at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. “Most school-based mariachis are approximately 50-50 guys-girls.”

One result, he continued, was that there are a lot of girls and boys graduating from high school with considerable mariachi experience. And many of these girls want to continue playing mariachi professionally, he added.

But among the high-profile “show” mariachis, Mr. Nevin said, the all-male groups still tend to resist admitting women instrumentalists, and the all-female bands are still catching up to the male bands in the market.

At Cielito Lindo, where Reyna performs every Tuesday night, the band draws a crowd that on a recent week consisted mostly of families with young children and birthday revelers who wanted their photographs taken with the women, who are mostly college graduates and whose day jobs include teaching and real estate. The Reynas may still be regarded more as a novelty than a bona fide group, but Ms. Massie said the compañeras have helped smash one stereotype: “They’ve proven that they are as capable of playing the music,” she said.

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