Musica para todos: Mariachi Northwestern brings Mexican sound, culture to campus


Photo courtesy of Daniel Flores

Antonio José Vielma (left) and Daniel Flores make up a fraction of the Mariachi Northwestern band.

James Bien, Reporter

If you hear violins, trumpets and guitars next time you’re feeding quarters into an old washing machine, don’t worry. There’s a new band in town and it’s bringing a festive sound to every corner of campus. Mariachi Northwestern recently made its debut and has since performed at various events.

For those who aren’t in the know, mariachi is a loud and brash form of folk music and dance that originated in rural Mexico and is typically heard at fiestas, celebrations and weddings. Performances are generally lively because musicians play either upbeat pieces or serenades to a bride and groom, and often do simple dances to accompany the music. There is no fixed set of instruments or number of instrumentalists in each mariachi band. Because of this, bands usually take all available musicians, recruiting a wide range of instrumentalists.

Mariachi Northwestern currently consists of two trumpet players, two guitarists, three violinists, one guitarron (bass) player and two vocalists. Despite its small size, the band has already played at multiple on-campus events, the most recent being a joint birthday celebration. Some of Mariachi Northwestern’s performances and rehearsals have also been recorded and published on Facebook. The rehearsals, in particular, show a casual side to musical performance. Practicing in random locations such as a laundry room, Mariachi Northwestern has an impromptu essence.

As the musical form has progressed through the years, mariachi performers have become typically virtuoso instrumentalists who are expected to perform highly skilled improvisations and songs by request. Yet Mariachi Northwestern insists no auditions are necessary and anyone is welcome to join.

“I can count on one hand the people here who are from the South Texas region. Students here wouldn’t have been exposed to this genre of music ,and so it’s unfair to test someone on something they’ve never seen before,” founder Daniel Flores said.

According to the Communication junior, the purpose of the band is to “spread mariachi to people from all borders, all backgrounds, all places from the United States. Everyone is welcome to participate.”

One would expect that by choosing not to hold auditions, the band may recruit inexperienced performers, but Flores points out that NU students are naturally talented at whatever they pursue. Violin performance majors and engineers alike participate in the band’s violin section.

Mariachi is not a style of music with which everyone is familar. However, in the events the band has played in, the audience has come to love and embrace it immediately, Flores said. In an effort to make the style more accessible, the band is currently working on a few arrangements of contemporary English songs, including a Beatles mix.

As a fairly new student club of only two months, there are many directions in which Mariachi Northwestern can progress. Flores said he hopes to extend the band’s reach to anyone who enjoys the music in the Evanston or Chicago. Because the band’s main purpose is to spark interest in mariachi, he said he wants to expand the group to local high schools.

“High schools don’t have mariachi programs even though there’s a large Hispanic community in Evanston and Chicago,” Flores said.

As his inspiration for forming the group, Flores cites his own time in high school, which did not have a mariachi program. Instead, he found one to join outside of school. Flores’ experiences prompted him to provide a more convenient means by which interested students can pursue a passion in mariachi music.

In the near future, Flores said the band plans to buy traditional mariachi costumes, or “trajes,” for the performers and create more authentic mariachi performances. Flores also wants to set up workshops for students in the Evanston and Chicago area to garner interest in mariachi.

For now, the band members are committed to sharing their group’s diversity with the larger student body. Bienen freshman Emily Oing, who had never heard of mariachi apart from on television, said her favorite part of being in the group is it’s camaraderie.

One of Oing’s bandmates said the band also contributes a new type of student group to NU.

“It really brings a change of direction. Since the a capella scene here is very dominant, this is a very different style of music which I think a lot of people can relate to and feel a little bit more at home,” Medill freshman Antonio Jose Vielma said.

The members are from many different backgrounds: Violinist Henry Cheng said mariachi not only brings a new form of music to campus, but also a diverse collection of people.

“Most colleges have an orchestra, but while mariachi is classical, it really is a different genre of music,” the Weinberg freshman said. “Also, I’m an Asian guy from Canada playing in a mariachi band, which is a good thing.”

Although mariachi is still a relatively unknown music genre at NU, it is quickly gaining attention throughout campus. Flores said he wants to bring more awareness of the Hispanic way of life with every Mariachi Northwestern performance.

“Mariachi is the celebration of traditional Mexican music and the passing on of that culture,” Flores said.