Viva el Mariachi

The UT campus is quiet in the summer, but not at the Butler School of Music—where the second-annual Longhorn Mariachi Camp filled the halls with joyful noise.


Ten minutes before the Longhorn Mariachi Camp final concert is set to start, the Butler School of Music is buzzing. In one hallway, two young women tie voluminous bows into one another’s hair while three violinists run through arpeggios. A classroom is serving as a changing room where men are trading their jeans and T-shirts for embroidered suits with jewel-toned ties, patent-leather boots shiny enough to check your hairdo in, and pants studded with jingling silver bontonadura.

In the Bates Recital Hall, parents chase after toddlers and friends stand in the aisles to chat. It’s a little chaotic, but the lights go down right on time, and when the musicians walk out and launch into “La Chinita,” an upbeat song bandleader Juan Contreras wrote in honor of his wife, the crowd erupts in whooping and clapping. Above it all looms the recital hall’s three-story-tall, 24-ton organ. With the brightly dressed musicians singing and swaying and strumming below, its solemn silver pipes somehow look a little more festive than usual.

IMG_4120“Enthusiasm,” says Zeke Castro. “That’s what I want to give the students. Enthusiasm for the music, confidence, and leadership.” Castro, BM ’61, Life Member, is a Butler School of Music lecturer and the founder and director of the Longhorn Mariachi Camp, which brought 21 high school musicians from across Texas to the Forty Acres this July for four days of intensive study.

A perpetually cheerful man with salt-and-pepper hair and an infectious laugh, Castro is a classically trained violist who picked up mariachi at age 30 while teaching and performing in San Jose, Calif. He’s been an evangelist for the genre ever since, having started the first mariachi programs in the Austin school district. “I would stand out in the hall and play my guitar as the kids were walking to lunch,” he remembers. “Occasionally someone would ask me what I was doing, and then I’d get them to sign up for my class.” He now directs Mariachi Paredes, UT’s student mariachi ensemble (whose insignia is, of course, a Longhorn silhouette topped with a sombrero).

Castro recruited Los Arrieros, an 11-man professional mariachi group based in El Paso, to serve as teachers for the camp. “If I could get paid to do this all the time, I would,” says Javier Villarreal, a physical education teacher who plays the guitarrón, a large, round-backed bass with a booming sound. “Mariachi just grows into you.” Over four days, the band members led classes in violin, trumpet, guitar, guitarrón, and vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument that sounds like a ukulele on steroids. They taught mariachi techniques, like the Huapango strum, a rhythm that helps give mariachi its signature sound.

And they taught singing. “Everyone sings in mariachi,” says Castro, “and some of these kids don’t have much singing experience. They’re afraid if they open their mouth, someone is going to hear them!” In one guitar class, a shy student slouched in his seat and sang at a barely audible volume—but by the final concert, he was belting out the lyrics.

Brigido Lagunes, a violinist who traveled from Rio Grande City for the camp, says he had a similar transformation. “Before the camp I didn’t have a lot of stage presence,” he says. “We learned how to be confident on stage.” Lagunes, 17, hopes to study engineering and music composition in college. “It’s my dream to go to UT,” he says. “I like how music is a universal language and wherever you go with music, you know you’re going to make friends.”

Below, watch an episode of the Hook about Mariachi Camp:

Photos by Anna Donlan



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