The Mariachi Divas Continue the Genre's Evolution

Traditionally Non-Traditional
Mariachi Divas continue the natural evolution of the genre

Mention the word “mariachi,” and a certain image will more often than not come to mind: Mexican men with bushy bigotes, singing traditional songs alongside musicians playing violins, trumpets and stringed instruments that include the oversized guitarrón.

For the past 10 years, Grammy-winning all-female troupe Mariachi Divas have been expanding the parameters of the centuries-old genre. Starting with the group’s founder/director, the blond, blue-eyed, Irish-Italian-American Cindy Shea, the Divas represent a multicultural lineup of women who are equally diverse in their musical approach.

The Mariachi Divas are ready for their yearbook photo
The Mariachi Divas are ready for their yearbook photo

For Shea, a trumpet player with a background in classical and jazz, the journey toward the Mariachi Divas began with forays into other realms of Latin music. “Previously, I was very much into salsa. I had been performing with Celia Cruz; every time she came to Los Angeles, I was part of the band that toured with her,” she says. “I was also touring with a very big artist named Joan Sebastian from Mexico, so I was already in the Latin market, but I hadn’t played mariachi music yet.”

Once Shea discovered the genre and learned to play it, she devoted herself to it whole-heartedly. “There were probably other musicians out there that maybe don’t know this music, or have never heard it also, so I asked myself, ‘Why not have a multicultural group?’” she says. “I got friends together that I had been playing with for years and also invited girls who have been playing mariachi all their life.”

The diversity of the Divas, which apart from its Mexican members has included Cuban, Argentine and Samoan musicians, defined the group from its inception. “We had this fusion and combination of girls from all different worlds and backgrounds, and that’s where the sound of the Divas was created,” Shea says.

Though the Mariachi Divas have departed from tradition by adding Caribbean percussion instruments and flutes, Shea sees these changes as in keeping with the spirit of mariachi. “If people did their history, they would know that when mariachi first started, there was no guitarrón. Instead, there was a harp playing the bass lines,” she remarks. “There were no trumpets either, and when [that] instrument was introduced, there was only one.

“We’re just flowing with the times,” she says. “The only difference is people aren’t used to seeing those musicians in charro suits!”

Mariachi Divas will perform at the House of Blues in support of their fifth studio album, 10 Aniversario. “This album is great because it takes a little bit of everything,” Shea says excitedly. “If you look at our previous CDs and the styles that came out through them, this CD takes all of them and puts them all together. This is definitely like a full Mariachi Divas show.”

Fans can expect to hear a range of musical styles from rancheras to sones to huapangos to cumbia on the eclectic disc. The Divas also include creative medleys of such traditional classics from the Mexican states of Jalisco and Veracruz as “El Son de la Negra,” “La Bamba” and “Guadalajara.” Forging along in their innovative style, the band also interpret songs from this side of the border in full mariachi fashion, such as Malo’s “Suavecito,” which is the perfect melding of a de facto Chicano anthem with the sounds that are Mexico’s national pride. More ambitiously, Etta James’ “At Last” is transformed into something perfect for the first Mexican-American president’s inaugural celebration.

Released on Shea’s independent label and East Side Records, 10 Aniversario is also a follow-up to the Divas’ dream come true. Their previous release, Canciones de Amor, earned the group their first Grammy Award earlier this year for Best Regional Mexican Album. With the accomplishment in hand, they feel ready for the next 10 years.

“I’m excited now for the future—more than I ever have been,” Shea says, “because now I truly know that anything is possible.”

Mariachi Divas with Sinfonia Mexicana’s Mariachi Youth Academy and Ballet Folklórico Ollín at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com/anaheim. Sun., 8 p.m. $12.50. All ages.

 
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