USCs new, student-led mariachi band brings back a Trojan tradition
Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC is heavily booked, with gigs on campus, at major city events and on television.
Rehearsal spaces near the USC Thornton School of Music are full on weeknights. Walk by and youll hear an oddly pleasing dissonance. Classical music and jazz compete with a sax player riffing on the intro to Careless Whisper.
On a recent evening, blasts of vihuela, guitarrón, violins and trumpets soared into that mix. The traditional mariachi melodies stopped and started, getting tighter with each run-through of tunes that swing from celebratory to melancholy.
El Rey, Si Nos Dejan, Acá Entre Nos and Hermoso Cariño are some of the many standards in the repertoire of the three-dozen-plus USC students who make up Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC.
Mariachi is the most beautiful music in the world, and being in the heart of Los Angeles such a diverse space, Latino-centered its important to find a way for students to express themselves culturally and creatively, said Eduardo Cardenas, the groups president. We bring a lot of fun, a sense of inclusiveness, and were all professionals, so we bring great music.
Cardenas is a mechanical engineering student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering from Bell, who graduated from East College Prep Charter High School in Lincoln Heights. Hes a fourth-generation mariachi, and his extended family includes dozens of professional musicians. Cardenas gigs with his father and uncle on weekends, something he never envisioned as a young boy.
I always wanted to step away from that, Cardenas said. School was always my calling, and after a while my parents stopped trying to force me to learn mariachi. I went through a rock phase in middle school. When I got into high school, I started to realize how beautiful mariachi actually is. I was lucky enough to have a teacher right at home. My dad gave me the discipline to be the best, and the best decision Ive ever made was picking up the violin.
USC mariachi group: building a band
When she accepted admittance as a classical guitar major at the USC Thornton School of Music in the fall of last year, Daniela Santiago took up residence at El Sol y La Luna, USCs residential college Latinx special interest floor. It was the best place for Santiago and co-founder José Pepe Romo to form a mariachi ensemble.
We connected and said, Were gonna make this happen. Were going to start rehearsing.
Daniela Santiago, group founder
As I introduced myself, I recruited people, Santiago said. I spread the word through the girls floor, then I moved down to the guys floor. We connected and said, Were gonna make this happen. Were going to start rehearsing.
The band practiced in the Cardinal Gardens parking lot and later at the Latinx Chicanx Center for Advocacy and Student Affairs (La CASA) before moving into a rehearsal space at USC Thornton. Momentum picked up last spring when Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC took top honors at USC Songfest. Multiple shows of all sizes followed, from the big El Grito Mexican Independence event at the East Los Angeles Civic Center to the Lululemon store at USC Village.
Appearances on television came next. Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC was the featured act on NBCs regional show California Live during Hispanic Heritage Month. Days later, the bands story was told on NBC News Los Angeles affiliate KNBC-TV.
Watch Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC visit NBCs California Live (story continues below video):
Performing rubato: USC mariachi group
The ensemble flexes like an accordion depending on the venue, event, budget of the host and availability of musicians. A group of five with a guitar, a viola, two trumpets and a violin is a common setup, but the number of musicians can easily expand to double digits.
Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC has a roster of about 40 players. Band members have turned out in big numbers for campus events, such as the closing ceremony of Latinx Heritage Month.
Cardenas, Santiago and Romo recruit, lead rehearsals, arrange transportation to concerts and manage the band all while holding down full course loads.
We just want to share mariachi with everyone, Santiago said.
A founders determination to scale up
A native of Austin, Texas, and the daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Santiago grew up loving music of all kinds. Her ears were often tuned to radio.
I always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but I just didnt have access to it growing up until seventh grade, Santiago said. I enrolled in a music program, started as a violist, and Ive been playing mariachi ever since eighth grade.
Santiago went on to study classical guitar but stuck close to mariachi, taking part in a music camp at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as regional competitions.
I was able to get into all of the colleges and conservatories I applied to, USC being one of them, Santiago said. UT Austin has one of the best collegiate mariachis. Theyre very competitive, theyre at an elite level. I got a free ride there and I knew the faculty, but USC just felt right.
But one thing was missing from USC as far as Santiago was concerned: There was no mariachi band.
I was shocked to find out USC didnt have a mariachi, Santiago said. UCLA has one; UC Berkeley has one; USC has to have one.
USC mariachi group: the best anywhere
Santiago, who describes USC Thorntons guitar faculty as the best anywhere, turned to guitar professor William Kanengiser, who serves as faculty adviser.
I told Bill, Ive grown up listening to it, played in competition and big events, I love sharing the music with everyone, Santiago said. There are going to be many people who have the same interest as me. Bill was even more excited than I was.
Kanengiser led a USC Thornton effort to outfit the band with instruments. The schools classical guitar department dipped into a fund established by author Jonathan Kellerman and bought a guitarrón and a vihuela.
The moment you meet Dani, youre struck by her drive, passion and love of music, Kanengiser said in an interview with USC Annenberg Media. Although shes a small person, she can fill up a room with her smile and energy. Her dream is to create a group at USC that will represent the Hispanic culture of USC students, not only when shes studying here, but continuing for generations.
Santiago, who shares credit with her fellow mariachis, sees major gigs ahead.
The Hollywood Bowl, performing with the marching band, football games, she said. Were thinking big.
The band that skipped a beat
Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC is not the first Trojan mariachi ensemble. The universitys last mariachi band formed in 1996. It was called Mariachi Sur de California but was often referred to simply as the USC Mariachi. Esau Perez played guitarrón in the student-run organization.
We werent necessarily accepted by the general population at USC, Perez said. We didnt have a whole lot of resources. But Im so proud of my heritage, proud to have graduated from USC. For me to be able to share my heritage at a campus I grew up loving, that was a big deal.
The group Perez was part of continued in various incarnations for about a decade, but it struggled with longevity.
As soon as the leaders would graduate, it was almost like the group had to start all over, Perez said. Mariachi has never been a course offered at the university. That was something we were hopeful could be done given the popularity of the music and USCs location. Its such a hotbed for that type of music.
Thanks to a personal connection with one of the members of Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC, Perez got involved with the new band last year and attended its performances more than 20 years after he graduated.
To see mariachi return, its kind of emotional.
Esau Perez, member
of USCs previous mariachi band
To see mariachi return, its kind of emotional, Perez said. Seeing how bright these kids are, I was incredibly impressed by the quality of young people that I saw. I got to speak to and got to know them personally. As an alum, I was immensely proud because of the music and because of what theyre creating, but even more so the quality of students that USC is recruiting.
Prelude, allegro, coda
Cardenas and Santiago smile softly as they play, while cantante Alberto Gonzalez musters the operatic energy mariachi demands for its songs of love, loss or devotion.
The musicians seem to be more attuned to each other with each rehearsal. Like all things linked to the college experience, though, the ensemble in its current form is ephemeral.
A lot of my Latinx friends go into STEM, Santiago said. A lot of them leave music behind eventually. Not me.
Cardenas, who will graduate with his engineering degree in two and a half years, reflects on his familys mariachi heritage as he ponders his future.
My dad said, Once you graduate, you never have to pick up the violin again, but if you ever want to come back youre always welcome, Cardenas said. Every time I play, its a timeless memory.