RED BANK – Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. While it is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, the holiday in the United States has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, with traditions that include music, parades and street festivals.
Cinco de Mayo, or the Fifth of May, will be celebrated in a big way this year at the Count Basie Theatre with a performance by Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles. The group, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1994 by Grammy-award winning musician and composer Jose Hernandez, bills itself as the first all-female professional mariachi ensemble. In Spanish, reyna means queen, so the group’s name means the Mariachi Queens of Los Angeles.
“Mariachi has been dominated by men for the past 200 years,” said Vanessa Sanchez, who has been a member of Mariachi Reyna for two years. “It really shows in the repertoire. The majority of the songs are written from a male perspective. The arrangements Jose makes for us are so beautiful. He really understands the movement of women in mariachi. I hope it reminds women that mariachi is as much theirs as it is for men.”
Sanchez, 24, started playing violin at the age of 13 and soon joined an after-school mariachi program at her California middle school. When it was time for college, Sanchez studied ethnomusicology – music in world cultures – at UCLA and joined a mariachi program at the school. Though she had intended to teach elementary school music after graduating, Sanchez heard Mariachi Reyna was looking for a violinist.
“I never thought I would keep going with mariachi but I decided to see where it would take me,” she said. “It’s been amazing so far.”
Mariachi Reyna consists of 11 women – some are students, have families or other jobs. There are six women on violin, two on trumpet, one on classical guitar, one on a small guitar called a vihuela and one on a guitarron, which is a large Mexican bass guitar. All are highly skilled on their instruments and sing as well.
“The main focus of Mariachi Reyna is the technicality of our playing,” Sanchez said. “We maintain our standards at a very high level with intricate arrangements. There are so many styles within mariachi – love songs, nostalgia, drinking and partying songs and passionate stories that take you back to a specific land in Mexico.”
Sanchez grew up hearing mariachi music in her home, but she never knew how far the music’s roots went in her family. She found out her grandfather played the trumpet in a mariachi band in Mexico; his father played guitar and his father before him played violin.
“Mariachi really connects me to my family,” she said. “I hope they’re glad the tradition in the family will live on.”
The women of Mariachi Reyna are excited for their first trip to New Jersey and hope to do a little sightseeing while here. But mostly they want to entertain the crowd on Cinco de Mayo and introduce their style of mariachi music to area residents.
“We usually get a very lively crowd,” Sanchez said. “They embrace and celebrate our music. For the Mexicans in the audience, it takes them back to their land for a few hours. But everyone has a little Mexican in them on Cinco de Mayo.”
For more information on Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, or to purchase a CD, visit www.reynadelosangelesmusic.com.
Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles will perform at 8 p.m. Monday, May 5, at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank. Tickets are $35, $30, $25 and $15 and available by calling 732-842-9000.
Vibe writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.