Tina Turner's rhyming couplet, the title of one of her biggest hits (circa 1988), could possibly be the most universally alluring way of describing the preeminent position currently owned (and justifiably earned) by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. After all, today the group itself is described as 'El Mejor en el Todo Mundo ' (The Best in The Entire World) by most of the respected analysts of Mexico's beloved musical genre. However. this wasn't always the case.
To best understand the evolutionary process that led to their current place atop the mythical Mount Mariachi's pinnacle, we would all do well to analyze the puzzling words of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson who said "Time is the thing that keeps everything from happening all at once."
The saga started in 1897. Gaspar Vargas , a guitarra de golpe player who resided in the small town of Tecalitlan located in the southern part of the Mexican state of Jalisco, decided to start a quartet. The other three members of his group were Manuel Mendoza on the arpa jaliscience, and two local violinists...Lino Quintero and Refugio Hernandez. This original group's sound was unique as it competed with cuartetos from Cocula who replaced the arpa and the guitarra with the guitarron and the vihuela. All of the musicians in both areas had learned the rudiments of their instruments aurally, what today is commonly called 'by ear,' listening to others (in many cases, their fathers) perform the appropriate parts and then attempting to duplicate what they heard. The hope was that repetitive practice would lead to a (close to) eventually perfect performance.
Differentiation seemed to be Vargas' sure path to increased success, but the addition of a wind instrument (the cornet) in 1913 was unpopular and short lived. Soon thereafter, another violin was added in its place; the practitioner was none other than Silvestre, don Gaspar's son. The group had now become a quinteto which it remained until Gaspar turned over the leadership of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan to his heir in 1931.
As soon as Silvestre took over, his first move was to expand the band into an octeto. He reasoned that the more varied instrumentation (five violins, a guitar, a guitarron, and an arpa) would be advantageous. The most popular of the groups with which Vargas wished to compete was Mariachi Tapatio under the direction Jose Marmolejo. Tapatio not only played in the legendary Salon Tenampa in Ciudad de Mexico's Plaza Garibaldi, they were also the stars of several of the increasingly popular movies featuring mariachi and their music, as well as being featured on their own twice-a-week show on the most popular radio station, XEW.
Vargas's newly appointed maestro relentlessly focused on turning the dream, that his eponymous group would one day be 'the greatest in all of Mexico,' into reality. To differentiate his band from the competition, he insisted that all of its members, when performing, were always meticulously outfitted in trajes de charro, that they were always punctual in meeting their commitments, and, that when they arrived ready to perform, they were all sober. He also avoided direct comparisons with Tapatio by avoiding performances in Mexico City concentrating on becoming the best in Jalisco.
His plan began to come to fruition when the group won first place in a major competition in Guadalajara in 1933 and then, in 1934, they finally traveled to Ciudad de Mexico and won another first prize in a city-wide contest. President Lazaro Cardenas loved their music and hired them as the official mariachi of the Mexico City Police Department which led the group to move to the capitol on a permanent basis. Now the competition with Tapatio was joined head-to-head and at close quarters. The new group in town got their own show on XEW, began to get hired for major music and entertainment performances in the municipality, and , beginning in 1937 , with their first feature film "Asi es mi Tierra," began their unprecedented run as the stars of more than 200 motion pictures. The legendary Pedro Infante requested them to accompany him in his films, as well. Also in 1937, they signed an exclusive contract with RCA's recording division and their first record was released to worldwide acclaim.
In spite of all the success, Silvestre Vargas was not satisfied. He wanted more diversification in his ensemble's sound, a strong voicing that would break through the string section's mellifluent sound. He remembered that his father, way back in 1913, had tried to incorporate the corneta as a fifth added element to the quarteto but its high pitched sound had been decried as 'annoying.' Silvestre decided to try again in 1941, this time hiring Miguel Martinez, a popular mariachi from Plaza Garibaldi, as Vargas' first trompeta player. The results, at first, were not unanimously favorable, but Martinez worked at perfecting his contribution, as well as perfecting the addition of a second harmonizing horn.
The real 'game changer,' however, was the addition in 1944 of Ruben Fuentes. Although Fuentes was a classically trained violinist with no background in mariachi, he was a complete musician. With Silvestre Vargas' blessing, he set about insisting that all of the group's members become proficient in all of the areas necessary for a musician to truly be classified a professional. They all had to be able to, amongst other skills, read music, perform all of the written music's commands and instructions, and to transpose from one key to another. Mariachi Vargas' became the epitome of professionalism, completely changing their image and sound under Fuentes' tutelage. They quickly shed the unsavory and unruly image that the term 'mariachi' immediately conjured up in the listening public's collective mind.
By 1950, the groups' instrumentation had been expanded to eleven performers: five violins, two trumpets, and an armonia (rhythm section) featuring a guitar, a guitarron, a vihuela, and an arpa jaliscience. In addition, everyone in the group was an accomplished vocal performer...in many cases the equivalent of operatic tenors.
The history of the group's most exciting period of growth, from 1950-2013, will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime, Please Save The Dates as to where and when you can see Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan perform live and in concert at the following venues:
1/27-28: Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, MI
2/9: City National Grove, Anaheim, CA
2/16: The Plaza Theater Performing Arts Center, El Paso, TX
3/16: San Diego Civic Theater, San Diego, CA
5/9: Chumash Casino, Santa Ynez, CA
5/11 Cache Creek Casino, Brooks, CA
6/29: Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA