Revived UA Mariachi Program Has Ambitious Plans for Future

Tina Alvarez
Nov. 5, 2002

Once again, the rich, cultural sound of the Mexican mariachi will resonate in the University of Arizona School of Music.Due to last spring's budget cuts, the program was among those eliminated in the UA curricula. In addition, then-director Javier Trujillo accepted a position teaching music in Las Vegas, leaving the University position vacant.

"Fortunately, the UA brought me out of retirement, to revamp this whole mariachi program," said Gilbert Velez, who brings almost 40 years of professional mariachi performing experience, beginning as one of the original members of Los Changuitos Feos and, in fact, he is the only one still performing from that original group. He also was one of the original founders of the Mariachi Cobre and performed with them for 10 years.

"I heard the kids didn't play once last year," Velez said of the UA mariachi program. "I've only had them for five weeks and I'm already going to have them perform." Their first performance was for the Hispanic Alumni Association at the beginning of October.

Velez said Janet Sturman, assistant director of the UA School of Music, wanted to resurrect the program and began looking for a new director.

"Luckily, just two weeks before classes, I heard of it and somebody asked me if I'd like to take it over and I said 'sure,' " Velez said.

Velez is also an award-winning karate instructor and teaches worldwide. He operated El Mariachi Restaurant for 16 years and closed it last year to have more time to teach karate. He continues to perform with his own group, Mariachi America.

Among the countries he travels to are England, Ireland, Greece, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Mexico, Sweden, Germany and all along the Eastern seaboard. He intends to use his karate connections to promote the mariachi program.

"I have plans to go to Hermosillo, then to New York. On November 25th I go to Portugal and Spain," he said. "I'm going to contact the sister cities in Mexico, Spain and in Ireland because I'm going to be there anyway. I'll make contacts and introduce myself to the schools as the director/instructor of the Mariachi Program at the School of Music/Dance at the University of Arizona in Tucson."

Plans for the one-year program will have the students performing locally and throughout the state. For the two-year program Velez wants the group to travel nationally and internationally.

"I think through endowments, grants and my professional group's help I can get them playing all over the world within three years," he said.

Currently 10 students, who were informed by e-mail, are involved in the program.

Richard Obregon, an associate professor in the School of Music, founded mariachi Arizona in 1993. Past directors included David Membrila and Javier Trujillo. The members of the group represented a wide array of disciplines campus-wide, including pre-med, pre-pharmacy, optical engineering, government and music. The mariachi course operates on three levels -- MUS 200, MUS 400 and MUS 500.

Mariachi Arizona specializes in performing the traditional Mexican repertory, including the signature genres of son, huapango, ranchera, joropo, bolero, polka and danzon.

"I have a one-two-three year plan and I'm hope I'm here past this year," Velez said with a laugh. "I want to build up the program, represent the UA and the City of Tucson in a good way and educate the students, not just entertainment, but being well-rounded. Travel is the best education there is. I know because I travel so much."