In the first three years of its existence, the 4th Annual Rosarito Beach (MX) International Mariachi & Folklorico Festival...scheduled for October 2nd through October 6th at the iconic ocean-front venue of the Rosarito Beach Hotel...has continued to grow. From just a two-day event back in 2010, it has now expanded into a five-day encuentro featuring a three day Talleres (Workshop) session, the premier mariachi film festival in the country, a Competencia between the best musicians, singers, and dancers from both Mexico & the United States, PLUS a gigantic Concierto Extravaganza featuring the Grammy award-winning Mariachi Divas and el mejor en el todo mundo, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. In addition, 100%...ALL..of the net proceeds goes to benefit the construction and operation of not one but TWO Boys and Girls Clubs for this very active city-by-the-sea. Each of these elements would be worthy of a feature by itself but, as you might have guessed from the title of this article, one important fact that we haven't mentioned might make for the most interesting story of all.
Junko Seki, one of the featured performers of Friday evening's (October 4th) penultimate concert, did not discover the traditional music of Mexico until she was 22. She hails from Chiba. And as the Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Sotomayor pointed out in an article written back in 1995, ...'Chiba is not a town in the Southwest or somewhere in Mexico. but 6,000 miles away...in Japan.'
Junko's first name is pronounced Joon-ko and although the open-air concerts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (October 4th, 5th, and 6th) will again feature top mariachi and folklorico groups plus world-famous solo artists, she might well be the favorite of the thousands of aficionados in attendance.
Her story is definitely one for the books and, while not as physically demanding as the Mount Midoriyama course that the 'American Ninja Warriors' are trying to conquer on the popular NBC weekly show, it is a study in strength, perseverance, and talent that deserves to be told...and retold.
Seki first became enchanted with mariachi music during a visit to Orlando, Florida's Epcot Center back in 1993 when she heard the famous 'Mariachi Cobre' give a live performance. She bought the group's tape in the theme park's gift store, took it back with her to Japan, and listened to it every day. "I first learned the words to 'El Balalu' and then memorized the other songs." She had studied Spanish in Japanese schools but, as she put it, "...learning the songs was quite a feat."
A year later she returned to Epcot Center to work at the Japanese Pavilion. At every opportunity she would go listen to Cobre, the resident music group, at Epcot's Mexican Pavilion. But Seki not only listened, she sang along.
Randy Carrillo, the Tucson, AZ native who is the musical director of Cobre, was surprised by a Japanese woman in the audience's front row, singing every word with his group. Carrillo met with Seki and was amazed at her musical ability. So were his musicians and and they began to instruct her, between their performances, on mariachi vocal techniques. They also looked for opportunities to put her on stage with them. To merely mention that she was a popular feature of their shows would be a gross understatement.
A year later, Seki flew to Mexico on her own when her compadres were invited to perform at the prestigious Guadalajara Mariachi Festival. Carrillo decided to let her sing 'La Charreada' with his group.As the LA Times reporter so colorfully put it "... the result was thundering applause, not only for Seki's rich rendition but for her stirring concluding 'grito' of 'arriba Jalisco!'
After receiving a standing ovation, Carrillo recalled that "...Junko was so happy that she cried for hours and hours. She is living proof of the beauty and influence of mariachi. Mariachi has spread worldwide. Her story illustrates her personal determination but it also tells much about the willingness of the established musicians to teach the art and tradition of mariachi to a new generation of worldwide students."
In fact, that educational component is what distinguishes the Rosarito Festival and others like it that have sprouted all across the United States. Strangely enough, instrumental music has been nurtured and continues to grow in the north-of-the-border school curricula and the number of mariachi school groups (all the way from elementary age students into college and postgraduate studies) has expanded exponentially. However, since the genre has not been part of Mexico's public school program since 1934., that is not the case in the country of the music's origin. Rosarito's event is already the second largest of its kind (following right after Guadalajara, Jalisco's previously mentioned conference) and this in only its fourth year of existence.
Along with Junko's appearance, accompanied by Mariachi Voz de America from Los Angeles, Friday's performances will also include Mariachi Tesoro de Tucson (AZ) accompanying Gabriela Sepulveda , the 13 year old wunderkind from San Jose, CA and Baja's best, Mariachi Aguila de Tijuana (who have represented the state for seven straight years at Guadalajara) playing with Ariel de la Rosa, this year's winner of the 'Baja Idol' competition. These will all follow the Student Showcase spotlighting the workshop students and their instructors. The following night, Saturday October 5th, the Concierto Extravaganza features Olga Flores and Friends from Tucson, AZ; Angel Lopez from Miami, FL, the vocalist who soloed on the mega hit (10 million copies sold worldwide) of 'A puro dolor'; a full set by the Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Divas with some very special surprise guests; and el mejor en el todo mundo, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, who will close the evening with classic renditions featuring their world-famous musicianship and virtuosity.
For Junko Seki, this concert represents yet another step in what has become a living dream for her. The ranchera from Chiba might be considered a novelty by some, but as Randy Carrillo says," ...she also has a pure and natural voice and an uncanny sense of mariachi."
This unlikely artist might very well be the biggest surprise of the Festival for those of you not familiar with her significant vocal gifts and passion for the music.