Laura Sobrino's life as a mariachi violinist began when she asked her mother for clarinet lessons. To her shock, her mother said, "Absolutely not. If you are going to take up anything it will be violin."
Laura remembers that day with a laugh. "I started crying. All my friends were taking clarinet and that is what I wanted to do, too. Then my mother offered an arrangement. She said I had to take violin lessons and learn the Ave Maria. Then, after I played the Ave Maria for her, if I still didn't like it I could take up any other instrument I wanted. That sounded easy to me. I went to school the next day with a permission slip for the violin thinking that I was going to beat my mother at this game. I would quickly learn the Ave Maria and go back to playing clarinet. But the first moment I held a violin I knew this was the instrument I was meant to play."
Laura turned that childhood challenge into a career as a professional mariachi, a teacher (she holds a master teacher certificate from the National Endowment for the Arts) and a publisher of some of the first accurate transcriptions of mariachi music.
Although she makes her living playing and teaching a Mexican folk style, she started as a classical violinist. After she began her lessons in school at the age of eight, one of her teachers recognized her talent and she was soon in private lessons. She progressed rapidly and was able to get into the University of California at Santa Cruz on a music scholarship where she encountered an unexpected culture shock. "I was just coming to terms with the fact I was Mexican. My parents didn't let me speak Spanish when I was growing up and there were a lot of Hispanics at UC Santa Cruz from the Fresno area and they all spoke Spanish. That was the first time I felt uncomfortable because I didn't speak Spanish. I grew up in Watsonville and I went to a surfer high school. My brother and I thought we were surfers."
At the end of her freshman year Laura decided to take a year off, move to Mexico City and learn to speak Spanish. After she returned to Santa Cruz, she found she missed Mexico. "I started signing up for music theory classes and stuff like that when I noticed a class called the Music of Mexico and my heart made a big ping." Laura went the first day to audit the class and wound up the star student. Part of the class was learning to play some of the instruments used in various Mexican folk styles. She learned to play norteño button accordion, the jarana jarocho, the requinto, the guitarron and the harp. Because she was a classically trained violinist, it fell to her to teach some of the other students the parts in the class mariachi. That was the beginning of her teaching and the end of her classical violin lessons.
It was during her sophomore year that she began her professional life as a mariachi. She joined a student group and started playing weddings and restaurants. She decided to write her senior thesis on mariachi violin and went to Los Angeles to study with a band led by a friend of one of her professors. This was where her education really began. "I thought I was really hot because I knew forty or fifty songs. This band could play anything. I learned that a good mariachi must know hundreds of songs." She also discovered that her classical training could sometimes be a hindrance. "I was used to reading the music from a page. I needed the notes in front of my eyes. In our first student performance the teacher said we were going to have to perform from memory. In my first performance I was still so insecure that I hid the music under my Mariachi jacket and when he wasn't looking I put the music at my feet, but he caught me. He came over with his dirty boots and stomped all over the pages. He looked at me and said, 'That is the last time you are going to use notes when you play this music.'"
When she was in Los Angeles she met José Hernandez, the leader of the popular Mariachi Sol del Mexico. She became the first woman to join the band and it was during her tenure that she had finally began to understand the music. "I was playing six nights a week for three months when I finally figured out what they were doing that made them sound mariachi. The other musicians teased me about the night it clicked. I made a gasp into the microphone and my eyes got huge. After the show they asked me what was that all about. And I said I finally understood how to play mariachi. If they played an unfamiliar song I knew how they were going to bow, how they were going to phrase it. At the next break I started writing down the bowings. That was the start of Mariachi Publishing."
[For the full text of this article, as well as an article on Mexico's Juan Reynoso of Tierra Caliente, purchase the Fall 1998 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Laura Sobrino has a web site, where you can order her mariachi transcriptions as well as get her teaching schedule. She also has a very good article on women in mariachi.http://www.mariachi-publishing.com
Fiesta del Mariachi is a web page put together by Sally Vega. It has sections on artists, history, concert listings and lots of links. This is great place to start if you are interested in mariachi. http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/2626/
How to Play Mariachi Violin, by Lawrence Sanders
Fuge Imaginea, P.O. Box 2027 Santa Monica CA 90406
Mariachi Publishing. Orders: (213) 727-0783; Fax: 213-278-9945
The best place to start is with recordings by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. Jonathan Clark recommends El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo, Fiesta en Jalisco, and Sones de Jalisco on RCA/BMG and Fiesta del Mariachi and En Concierto on Polygram. More than any other group they define what mariachi is. You can buy just about anything by them and it will be good. Other groups to look out for are Mariachi Cobre and Mariachi America de Jesus Rodriguez de Hijar.
Arhoolie (510-525-7471) has released a series of CDs of early mariachi recordings that is worth checking out:
- Mariachi Coculense 1926-1936 (Arhoolie CD 7011)
- Mariachi Tapatio de Jose Marmolejo (Arhoolie CD 7012)
- Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan (Arhoolie CD 7015)
- Cuarteto Coculense 1908-1909 (Arhoolie CD 7036)
Corason (dist. by Rounder, 800-443-4727) has a fine recording of a group called Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero. They are from Jalisco, the region where mariachi was born. Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero, Sones from Jalisco (Corason COCD 108)
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]