Before you start reading this piece, some serious contextualising is required. I am in a band called Roja.
“We’re bringing Mariachi Back” is one of our tag lines.
“Modern Mariachi Music” is another.
Therefore it only makes sense for us to cast our eyes over centuries of musical history and compile a list of our favourite Mariachi singers. Right? Well, maybe...
There are a couple of caveats. I love Mariachi Music. I bloody love it. Not really the Mariachi music that occasionally appears on the TV in the form of a Dorito’s advert (although I do have a soft spot for that as well) but the more indigenous form that was created and performed from the end of the 19th Century, initially in Mexico, but which then spread to all over the Americas and out to the rest of the world.
However, Roja are not that type of act. There’s no chance of us turning up at a wedding, playing a Mariachi version of “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League and wearing big hats. Our band came from a conversation with the bass player when we were bored in rehearsal. Desperate for inspiration, I asked for a new genre for us to have a go at and Mariachi was a suggestion that hung around in my mind until I next picked up the guitar. What we have become is a band that writes songs that are then put through a kind of Mariachi filtering machine (it’s trademarked so don’t ask to borrow it).
We don’t try in any way to replicate the artists I’m writing about today. They lived, breathed and expressed themselves with this music every day of their lives, so there’s no chance some bloke from Liverpool could replicate that sound. However, we have created a kind of Mariachi haze that glows out the top of each song we write, like our own cumulative lucky halo.
The singers in my list aren’t people that I can claim to know a great deal about as people. There are plenty of links for all of them which describe their styles and importance to Mexican musical history much better than I ever could. Principally, though I do know about the sound of their wonderful voices and how their emotive, plaintive, resonance inspired me when I tried to stick this album of ours together.
For those in the know there are no surprises here. Vicente Fernández is to Mariachi and Mexico what Sinatra and Elvis were to the USA. When you start to try and put together songs for a totally new style of music, it’s a pretty intimidating task. So my research began with a true giant of the genre. Vicente Fernández has a voice that can sooth, relax and whisper to you like a confidant who is plumbing the depths of every emotional sphere. Equally, and with a sudden burst of operatic sonorousness, he can blow the speakers apart, bursting the drama to the surface and breaking down the walls between himself and his audience. He is an iconic figure for his country, the King of Ranchera music and this is all represented in his lavish live shows. Every vocal performance of his that I have come across has left me thinking two things: “How the hell does he do that?” Quickly followed by, “Blimey, I wish I could do that...”
Around 18 months in to this project and after a while of writing with my Mariachi glasses on, I became, frankly, a little complacent. So, when Lucha Villa grabbed my attention she reminded me that some of the vocal features I was looking for were still in fact miles away from my grasp. She can sound laconic, as if allowing the words to simply appear through her marvelous tone, but there is a subtlety at play in her legendary performances that leaves her melodies streaming through your brain for hours. Her relative restraint is a wonderful counterpoint to the drama of the music - but that is not to say that she can’t absolutely belt it out beautifully as well! She always has the most fluid use and control of both her head and chest, which ensures continuing melodic impact and emotional resonance. Lucha Villa was a welcome reminder that even in the most emotive of genres, giving less is sometimes giving just that little bit more.
Jose Alfredo Jimenez
So I don’t speak any Spanish, right. One of my concerns for the record was that I may be missing a great deal of the context of all of these marvelous Mariachi artists, but eventually I just gave that up, stopped looking at lyric translations and tried to embrace the feeling and the nuances of the Mariachi voice. There is something in Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s performances that makes me think that we are good friends, enjoying life and love, and dealing with any trials and sadness as friends together. Without knowing what he is saying, I know that he is a marvelous storyteller. I particularly enjoy his performances where it feels like he is regaling me with hilarious anecdotes of his adventures, stood up at a bar, beer and tequila on tap, whilst I drink my sorrows away. I don’t know what he’s saying to me but damn, I feel a whole lot better.
Roja's debut album, Promises I Should Have Kept, is out now on Probe Plus Records. Check them out on Facebook here