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Young Mariachis Learn To Sing And Play From The Pros At Summer Camp

Mariachi music has a long history, dating back to 18th century Mexico. How do you get the younger generation interested in this old tradition of guitar strumming, violin playing and passionate singing? We checked out a mariachi summer camp for middle and high school kids at the University of North Texas at Denton.

Inside a college classroom, 20 or so students sit in a semicircle listening to Jose Hernandez, founder of the Grammy-nominated Mariachi Sol de Mexico. He tells them about his childhood singing idol – Michael Jackson. Everything Jackson sang, Hernandez sang, too. But nothing compared to his love for mariachi music.

“I woke up to it. I went to sleep with it. On the way to school, I heard it,” Hernandez said. “Home, mariachi. At night, mariachi. The next day, my dad with his mariachi rehearsing in the living room. Everything in my life was mariachi.”

Hernandez comes from a long line of mariachis – six generations actually. Before his father – a violinist and singer – died, he promised him he’d start a foundation to teach the music to underserved children. He did. Established in 1991, the Mariachi Heritage Society offers free and low-cost classes to kids ages 7 to 18. This week, Hernandez is sharing his knowledge with 70 teens and pre-teens who are staying in the dorms at UNT.

“And I tell them that mariachi is a very special kind of music because it’s really from the heart,” Hernandez said. “So we’re trying to make the instruments speak and you sort of want to connect to the lyric of the song and sometimes a lot of them are love songs. We call them canciones de amor and canciones de desamor.”

That’s songs of love and heartbreak.

Michelle Quintero, a mariachi voice instructor at Texas State University tells students that even if they haven’t experienced what the song’s describing, they need to paint a picture in their head, find a way to relate. A singer, she said, interprets the song.

For 17 year-old Seth Bullis, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. The R. L. Turner High School student plays trumpet and has attended the camp for six years. He said he doesn't know Spanish, but he still gets a lot out of the music.

“When I come here, I can feel it like running through me," said Bullis. "It gets me really excited when I get to play the lead trumpet parts. It captures the emotion that other music can’t.”

The camp is a mix of boys and girls, more boys than girls. In recent years, the number of girls joining or forming mariachi bands has increased, Hernandez said. In 1994, he formed what he said is the first all-female ensemble Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.

Valeria Ibarra, who’s 17, and also plays trumpet, said she likes the fact that more girls are learning how to play this kind of music and wants to continue playing for a long time.

“I listen to it a lot, especially with my dad, because he’s from Mexico,” Ibarra said. “So that’s all we listen to.”

Donna Emmanuel, music education professor at UNT, says many of the campers come from families where no one has attended college. The goal is to get them interested in something they can relate to and keep them interested.

“They love coming to camp because they get to hang with people that love the same music that they do," Emmanuel said. "And that doesn’t always happen in the schools where they are.”

Emmanuel said the students enjoy it so much, many stay up playing late into the night during impromptu jam sessions. Wednesday night, they played Radiohead's "Creep."

Students will perform a song with the professional band Mariachi Sol de Mexico during a concert Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the UNT Murchison Performing Arts Center. For ticket information, call the box office at 940-369-7802 or visit the center's website. Denton-based Mariachi Quetzal will open the concert with a performance. A free, public concert will take place at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the same location.

Here's Mariachi Sol de Mexico playing "El Rey de La Huasteca."

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.