Mariachi Quetzal Bucks Tradition

Mariachis are a vital part of Mexican culture and identity. But one mariachi group in particular is proving that this traditional art form is not just for those of Mexican descent.

Only three of Denton's Mariachi Quetzal boast Mexican backgrounds. Of the remaining seven, one is Guatemalan. The rest are of miscellaneous Caucasian backgrounds.

It's a little strange, seeing a mariachi ensemble that's composed of primarily young white people, not to mention a mixture of men and women. But the band's vihuela player, Alexia Quintero, doesn't see it that way.

"Where I'm from, you see men and women, black people and Asian people and all kinds of ethnicities in mariachi bands," she says. "So this isn't that weird to me."

Boasting a shared love for traditional mariachi music and fierce adherence to the traditions of the style, part of the reason for the band's cohesion is its shared connection to the University of North Texas' music school. Each of the 10 members of the band is an alumnus, a professor or a current student in the storied program. Meaning? They take a very scholarly approach to mariachi music, complete with transcriptions to sheet music and discussions of songs using an advanced grasp of music theory.

"Since we've come from UNT, we use that in our rehearsals," says trumpet player James Kerr. "Most of us are education majors; half have graduated already."

Although tied to the university through camps and clinics put on through the school (including a mariachi music class), Mariachi Quetzal is very much a professional group, playing at weddings and quinceañeras. Once, they even played a funeral.

"At first, we were playing a lot of somber stuff and people were crying," says Kerr. "But then we started playing more upbeat traditional songs, and eventually people were laughing."

With somewhere between 70 and 100 songs in their repertoire, and a lineup larger than most mariachi acts, the band can make a hell of a lot of noise. This, along with their multicultural and mixed-gender makeup, may explain the recent up-tick in interest in booking the band to play traditional mariachi venues and even some metal clubs.

With so many members, though, booking those gigs can be a bit of a hassle. Fortunately, the band's members are all able to make the band's regular gig in Denton every Friday night at a restaurant called La Milpa, which, afterward, turns into sort of a bar that plays salsa, merengue, cumbia and various other kinds of Latin dance music. Stylistically, that's a bit of a mixed bag.

But, then again, so is Mariachi Quetzal.

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Rodrigo Diaz