MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we have a little reminder for those of you who may be a little forgetful when it comes to holidays. If you have been procrastinating or just not sure what to get Mom for Mother's Day, we have a suggestion. This year, you might skip the flowers and that overbooked brunch. Have a little music to say, thanks, Mom.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: That was Mariachi Los Amigos playing "Tequila con Limon," and this might surprise you. Mother's Day is one of the busiest holidays for mariachi bands. They can be booked months in advance.
And so with that in mind and also on the fact that this is the day that mothers are celebrated in Mexico, we thought we'd take a look at the art of mariachi music. Joining us is Dan Sheehy. He is the director for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. He's also a member of Mariachi Los Amigos. That is Washington, D.C.'s oldest mariachi band.
Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
DAN SHEEHY: Well, thank you.
MARTIN: Why do mariachi bands get booked up for Mother's Day? So, actually, as far as you're concerned, it's actually too late for Mother's Day...
SHEEHY: Well, no. There are a few little spaces here and there, but...
MARTIN: OK. But why is that?
SHEEHY: Well, it goes back before there was an official Mother's Day, actually, you know, mariachi music - gee - and ever since we know that there was mariachi music, back in the 1850s, at least, they played serenades. They played for parties. They played for special things called Mananitas, which means, literally, early in the morning. And it had to do with a serenade, so they go serenade people's loved ones, and mothers in particular.
MARTIN: So what you'll do is you'll go from house to house on Mother's Day? Really, for the whole weekend, playing for Mom.
SHEEHY: Yeah. It depends. In the United States, since we live in a little more controlled environment, let's say, than Mexico, there are lots of stories about mariachis playing outside at 5:00 in the morning and suddenly the (unintelligible) player disappears because somebody arrested him and took him off or something like that.
But - yeah - it's very popular in the United States. People generally charge by the hour, so there are mariachis you hire for an hour. They show up at Mom's house and play the songs that they want to hear.
MARTIN: Well, it is Mother's Day in Mexico, so why don't we hear a little bit of "Amor de Madre," and this is the version played by Mariachi Lobo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR DE MADRE")
MARIACHI LOBO: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: Is this a popular one for Mother's Day?
SHEEHY: That's totally popular for Mother's Day for mothers. (Spanish spoken) - "Our Beloved Mom," is another one of those popular ones. That - actually, "Amor de Madre" came out of the (unintelligible) tradition, the northern part of Mexico, but since it just hits the target straight on, love for mother, you know, all the mariachis play it and any kind of serenading type group, you know, trios or mariachis or whatever.
MARTIN: Do you open with this one or do you kind of work your way up to it?
SHEEHY: Sometimes. You know, I'll tell you, the relationship between mariachis and clients, so to speak, in people's houses or whatever, is a very close one, so you generally don't go and do a set of music. You go and you play what people want to hear.
MARTIN: Dan, would it be rude of me to point out that you're not Mexican?
SHEEHY: Oh, my goodness. Let's see. I've only heard that for 44 years now.
MARTIN: Forty-four years. Yes. So how did you get involved in playing mariachi music and how did you get involved with Mariachi Los Amigos? I mean, the group's been together since - what - 1978?
SHEEHY: 1978. That's right. Well, the short version of the story is just good luck. I just fell in with mariachis and it's been great ever since. I was playing rhythm and blues, actually, in Los Angeles, in Compton, and our guitar player was recruited by war and that was pretty much the end of the Thunder Brothers at that point. And I was also playing at UCLA as a grad - or an undergraduate at that point - playing Ashanti drumming music, and one of the musicians in that group with me said, hey, we have this mariachi. I hear you're out of work with the R&B group. Why don't you come and play with us? And I said, great. Let's do it.
And there was a man named Jesus Sanchez(ph) - Sanchez - from (unintelligible) a state in West Mexico. He was pure mariachi through and through. He'd played music since the '20s and a man of great dignity and great inspiration, and that was '68 and been playing mariachi music ever since.
MARTIN: How do your audiences respond to you?
SHEEHY: Well, actually, they...
MARTIN: Do they even notice that you're not Mexican?
SHEEHY: They say pretty much what you said there. They say, excuse me, but you don't look Mexican and I say, hmm. Gee, if I had a quarter for every time somebody said that to me, I'd...
MARTIN: But you speak Spanish at this point. Did you always?
SHEEHY: (Spanish spoken). And I even - I don't call myself a singer, but you know, if you're really going to do your thing playing mariachi music, you need to play your instrument and sing as well, so everybody needs to sing.
MARTIN: So you do both?
SHEEHY: That was me on the (singing in Spanish) in that little recording there.
MARTIN: How big do you think your repertoire is at this point?
SHEEHY: Well, there's things that are rehearsed and sound solid and all that. That's well over 100 tunes, but in order just to - if somebody asks for a song, you know, you can kind of improvise an arrangement out of, you know, your back pocket or something. Several hundred, in our case. I'll tell you, if you get into the heavy duty mariachi territory there, you're talking probably a couple thousand songs, easy.
MARTIN: How has your life changed, though, since the Latino diaspora has expanded far beyond the South-Southwest of the United States and the West Coast of the United States? It used to be that the Latino population was pretty much, you know, the Southwest and the West Coast and now it's national. And I wonder, has the band become more popular over time, less of a novelty? There more competition now?
SHEEHY: Well, I have...
MARTIN: Being in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital...
SHEEHY: Yeah. I have kind of various lives. One is in folk life and also director of Smithsonian Folkwaves Recordings and in that role I kind of have this national view and I can tell you that more than one-half of the United States have active mariachi groups in them these days. That didn't used to be the case.
In terms of this area, it's interesting to see who's playing mariachi music here and that's a reflection of where mariachi music is in Latin American and in the world today, because here musicians from Bolivia, from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Mexico, from other countries, Columbia - that's where people come from who play mariachi music here in the D.C. area.
MARTIN: Well, so what are you going to be doing for Mother's Day? Are you playing? Is your mom still with us or no?
SHEEHY: No. But...
MARTIN: So you won't be playing for her.
SHEEHY: The mother of my children are still with us.
MARTIN: Will you playing for her?
SHEEHY: Sure, yeah. She loves...
MARTIN: And what are you going to play for her?
SHEEHY: She likes Linda Ronstadt songs, I have to tell you, so Linda Ronstadt did her great (Spanish spoken) album and then (Spanish spoken) album, and the mother of my children likes to sing.
MARTIN: You got her covered. OK. I'm just making sure.
MARTIN: Dan Sheehy is the director for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. He is also a member of Mariachi Los Amigos. That is the Washington, D.C. area's longest continuously existing mariachi ensemble, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Thank you so much and Happy Mother's Day to the mothers.
SHEEHY: (Spanish spoken)
MARTIN: Well, for all the mothers who aren't Linda Ronstadt fans, here's "Amor de Madre" one more time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR DE MADRE")
LOBO: (Singing in Spanish) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.