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Mariachi Academy of New York

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Members of the Mariachi Academy of New York, photo courtesy of the Mariachi Academy of New York
Members of the Mariachi Academy of New York, photo courtesy of the Mariachi Academy of New York
St. Paul School on 118th Street, photo by Elena Martínez
Church on 117th Street with Guadalupe statue, photo by Elena Martínez
Ramón Ponce in front of school (and Mariachi Academy sign), photo by Elena Martínez
School dedicated to teaching a Mexican musical tradition
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Though there are various mariachi bands that perform in New York, the tradition is really kept alive by Ramón Ponce Jr. and his father, Ramón Sr . Twenty years ago they founded the group Mariachi Real de Mexico, and they also started the Mariachi Academy of New York.  The Academy, where the younger Ramón is the Musical Director, will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, in 2012.

Ramón Jr. was born in Puebla, Mexico in 1975.  He comes from musical families on both sides—he’s a fourth generation musician. Ramón Ponce Sr. was a member of Mariachi Puebla, and his son began singing at the age of four and playing the guitar at age nine. Later on, Ramón Jr.  took some vihuela (a five-stringed guitar-like instrument), guitarrón, and piano lessons. The Ponce family moved to New York in 1987 and settled in Kew Gardens, Queens.  A few years later, at the age of 16, Ramón Jr. joined his father’s band, the Mariachi Real de Nueva York. The band began by playing in smaller venues like restaurants and worked their way up to bigger venues like Carnegie Hall.  They have performed with some of the top names in the mariachi field like Ana Gabriel.  And they even recorded a song for Tito Puente’s last album, the Grammy-nominated, Masterpiece, where Maestro Puente collaborated with Eddie Palmieri, and later performed with Puente and Palmieri at Madison Square Garden.

The mariachi tradition began in central Mexico in the states of Colima and Jalisco about a century ago.  Guadalajara in Jalisco is now called “la cuna de mariachi” (the cradle of mariachi).  The music they play is most commonly ranchera, but through the years other genres of music have been adapted to the style, such as boleros.  Eventually when musicians in this tradition began to play more urban locales they adopted a different look, quite different than the original cotton pants, straw hat, and sandals.  They started to wear the fancier traje de charro, the traditional clothes of the hacienda owners, and that has become the trademark mariachi look.  The tradition radiated out from its origins and nowadays you can go to Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City and see hundreds of mariachi groups playing. Mariachi is considered the national music of Mexico. It became very popular among the various Latino communities here in the United States in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s during the Golden Era of the Mexican cinema.  Spanish-language movie houses, like the Teatro Hispano in East Harlem and Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx, played the many Mexican movies of the day which featured mariachi music performed by screen legends like Jorge Negrete, Javier Solis, and Pedro Infante.

Here in New York there were always young people interested in this tradition. Ramón Jr. remembers that he and his father used to teach four to five students at his home, but they were really interested in teaching the music to a larger audience.  In regions of the United States where there were large Mexican communities, such as throughout the west in New Mexico, California and Texas, there had been programs and schools to pass on knowledge of mariachi music, but on the east coast there were none.  So they started the Academy with the help of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD) through an initiative they had developed to research and promote Mexican culture in New York City, called Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture without Borders. Ramón Jr. enlisted the aid of his friend, José Hernández, who had been instrumental in the mariachi movement in California (including the formation of an all-female band). Hernández came to New York to advise on the formation of the academy.  Then Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist at CTMD, helped them obtain funding through the National Endowment for the Arts. The project was funded and the Mariachi Academy of New York began with forty students (80% of whom were girls).  Now there are 120 registered students, about 70% of whom are Mexican, the others are from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and even a couple from Haiti and of Jewish-American descent.

The Academy meets at the St. Paul School on 118th St. in East Harlem, in the middle of a growing Mexican community. Ramón says that the Academy is the first mariachi school “east of the Mississippi.” Classes are held after school from 6:00 to 8:00pm, and students range in age from seven year old to seventeen.  There are seven instructors to teach three skill levels on the following instruments: trumpet, violin, vihuela, guitarrón (traditional Mexican bass), guitar, harp, vocals; a music theory class was added about seven years ago. The students must audition before they enter the program—really the audition is a way to find out where they will fit into the program.  The students are shown the various instruments that are taught and they decide which one they would like to learn. The audition process also helps place returning students and to see if they practiced during the summer break.  In the first year,  students take two classes a week (their instrument and a music theory class), and then there is a group rehearsal.  If they come back a second year they can take a vocal class.  The curriculum is progressive with beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, and classes are free so there is the constant need to fundraise to maintain this.  Students and their families are asked only to pay for a registration fee at the beginning of the year and $20 for a music book.  They also must buy their own instrument to ensure they are completely invested in the program.

Today the school has a waiting list of eighty students.  Ramón Jr. has been asked to help form another similar school in Wallingford, CT, who plan to name their program after their East Harlem inspiration and call it the Mariachi Academy of Connecticut.  Ramón has been discussing the idea of another Academy with people in Miami, FL, and also hopes to have one in Chicago, IL., soon, which will benefit the large Mexican community there.  Ramón commented that friends and musicians from Mexico always ask him, “Ramón you play nice.  Why don’t you go back to Mexico and play with Vicente Fernández or these great singers and bands?”  And he responds, “I don’t want to just go back.  It’s easy for me to just take my instrument and be part of something bigger but I want to bring the tradition to New York.  And that’s been my work.  And that’s something that I have in mind all the time to be able to teach not only our children about mariachi music, but also the public, the people in general, what mariachi music is really about and what the whole mariachi tradition really is.”

-written by Elena Martínez, Place Matters, 2012