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Concerts, culture and correcaminos


Recent statewide mariachi workshop and concert celebrate the music of families and educational opportunity.

Sung on birthdays throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Las Mañanitas is a traditional Mexican song that tells of a new morning bursting with flowers and wishes of happiness.

Similarly, the musical expression of mariachi has taken root and blossomed over the past several years here on the MSU Denver campus. Take, for example, the student ensemble Los Correcaminos (“Roadrunners”): From beginning as a student group and evolving within the department into a for-credit class celebrating the music and culture of Mexican heritage, the group now regularly performs throughout the Denver community.

Recently playing host to a statewide mariachi workshop and concert featuring the globally-renowned Jóse and Chuy Hernàndez of Mariachi Sol de México, MSU Denver is emerging as a player on the national mariachi scene, according to affiliate music faculty and ensemble director Lorenzo Trujillo, Ph.D.

“It’s historic – there have been other conferences and workshops, but never at this level in an academic setting at a university within Colorado,” he said.

Mariachi meets math

According to Trujillo, one of the objectives of the event has been to answer a call from school district superintendents to build a socially engaging pipeline within the schools, linking community to achievement and bolstering attendance.

“When you offer a curriculum that’s important and one that students relate to, they come to school,” said Trujillo. “It respects Mexican culture and the music of families.”

That familial connection is critical to building lasting impact that translates into academic success, said Pamela Liñan, principal of Denver Public School’s Bryant Webster Dual Language ECE - 8 School. Liñan, a 1984 music graduate and Roadrunner alumna, directs the El Mariachi Juvenil de Bryant Webster, which she founded in 2004 as the first elementary mariachi group in the DPS system.

“[Mariachi] bridges communication through culture and music,” said Liñan. “I’ve heard students say, ‘I can now talk to my grandpa and play guitar with him.’ It’s bringing families closer together.”

The effort is doing even more than connecting college students to their cultural roots. For music students looking to become teachers, it’s preparing them to meet the educational needs of Latino/a children (who are increasing) that they’ll have in their classrooms.

And, as Liñan noted, there’s a direct connection between armonía and arithmetic.

“Music is math; it quite literally translates into numbers,” she said. “Think about fractions: There’s four beats in a measure – one-fourth, that’s a quarter note.”

Serious musicianship; passionate performance

According to Trujillo, mariachi compares with other symphonic arrangements. Compositions consist of complex syncopation, harmony and melodic scaffolding that could just as easily be found in work by Brahms, Mahler and Mozart.

Mariachi, he points out, also remains a distinctly performative vehicle. To tap into the passion and put an individual stamp on interpretations, musicians will first memorize the complex scores, then play without them. This affords showmanship, mastery and builds confidence for leadership – whether in front of a boardroom, classroom or orchestra.

“Performers routinely flirt, embrace and engage in relationships with the audience, who in turn often scream with joy,” said Trujillo. “With a symphony, it’s hard to walk away from a musical score to do that.”

For ensemble member and music education major Benjamin San Martín Kellogg, that direct and immediate connection with the audience is the secret ingredient to mariachi’s success

“The best feeling is when you’re playing and see people singing along,” he said. “They already know the songs and lyrics from the radio – it definitely adds an element of connection for the performer.”

A trumpet player, Kellogg has been with Los Correcaminos as a student club before it became a formal ensemble. One element he noted is the versatility mariachi adds to a musician’s repertoire. As a veteran performer of classical, jazz, alternative, punk and ska as well, he sees the different genres informing and complementing one another.

“If you can teach four or five different genres well, you’re going to help more students and have more [private lesson] clients,” said Kellogg. “You have to be able to wear a lot of different hats, and mariachi helps you to do that – you can connect culturally on so many levels.”

That connection is the root of building community among students, Kellogg, Trujillo and Liñan noted. And that’s a tradition that continues to span generations, for many mornings to come.

“We’ve had students go on through high school, into MSU Denver’s ensemble, then come back to play and mentor our students,” said Liñan. “It really does create a family.”

Check out images from the concert below, featuring El Mariachi Juvenil de Bryant Webster (Denver Public Schools), Mariachi Aguila de Eaglecrest (Eaglecrest High School), Mariachi Aguila (Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy), and Los Correcaminos (MSU Denver). Carousel photo credit: Teresa Diaz-Soriano

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