Maestro Gabriel Zavala's Rhythmo Mariachi Academy Changes Kids' Lives

Gabriel Zavala and the kids of Rhythmo Mariachi Academy
Gabriel Zavala and the kids of Rhythmo Mariachi Academy
Gabriel San Roman

"Maestro, can you fix my violin?" a young girl asks Gabriel Zavala during mariachi rehearsals in Anaheim. The 71-year-old instructor takes her instrument, turns the pegs and tunes by ear. "Maestro! Maestro! Maestro!" another girl pleads to get his attention. "My teacher wants to know if you can play at our school." Just then, a nylon string pops out of place to everyone's surprise.

The young, mostly Mexican students at Zavala's Rhythmo Mariachi Academy are taking a break from Wednesday-night rehearsals in a small warehouse space near Disneyland. Their big festival at Pearson Park Amphitheatre in Anaheim is just 10 days away and everything has to be practiced to perfection. Oliver Zavala, the maestro's son, gathers the kids together in the hallway, where sequined mariachi sombreros hang over a row of giant harps. "You'll be backstage, and you'll be nervous," he says, teaching the kids to listen for cues. "You are the show; you can't watch the show."

The youngsters are attentive, if fidgety, while their parents are busy making huge flowers out of tissue paper to decorate the stage. The kids then file into the big rehearsal room to practice their mariachi versions of English folk songs such as "Oh My Darling, Clementine."

"I fought the name and didn't want to be called 'maestro,'" Gabriel Zavala says of the reverential word for "teacher" in Spanish. "I play 10 instruments but never went to music school to learn one."

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The elder Zavala grew up dirt-poor in Acámbaro, a little ranchito in Guanajuato, Mexico. "There was no running water, electricity, church or school," he recalls. His father worked as a bracero and the family moved to Tijuana, where he briefly attended fifth grade at the age of 15, the only schooling of his life.

The Zavala family eventually resettled in Anaheim in 1965, but Gabriel visited the city long before that. As a Tijuana kid shining shoes and selling chicle, he got to visit Disneyland when a charitable group organized a trip for poor youth. "I spent the most beautiful day of my life at Disneyland," he says. Zavala started playing guitar in Tijuana and brought his rock & roll dreams to the United States, but on this side of the border, his passion became mariachi music, starting a career spanning more than 20 years. "I never reached any big record deals or venues for my compositions," Zavala says.

In 1996, he found a different recipe for success when a ballet folklorico director hired him to assemble some mariachi kids for a show. The seeds of the academy were planted. Rhythmo is actually an acronym for Reaching Helping Youth Through our Heritage in Music Organization. Classes were originally held just once a week in a cramped room at the since-demolished George Washington Center in Anaheim. The academy enjoys the use of multiple rooms in its current facility, with instruction at all skill levels happening Monday through Thursday.

Rhythmo also buses kids to the week-long Tucson International Mariachi Conference every April. All-stars of the traditional genre from groups such as Mariachi Sol de México teach workshops. The annual event partially inspired Rhythmo to host a festival of its own in Anaheim, starting with a fundraiser in 2006 with the city's rotary club, of which Zavala was a member. "The other clubs didn't want to participate," he says. "They thought it was too ethnic."

These days, big sponsors believe in Zavala's mission, and the city is even waiving the rental fee for the amphitheatre. "I couldn't do any of this without my son," he says. A trumpeter who played with Save Ferris and is currently with Starpool, Oliver Zavala is following in his father's footsteps. Though he grew up with mariachi music all around him, Oliver was reluctant to don the charro suit famous to the genre. He came to a greater appreciation when the lyrics spoke to his growing pains of breakups and other life experiences. "Every song started to make sense," he says.

Since Rhythmo started, Oliver has taught side-by-side with his father. The students call him "Mr. Oliver" because "Maestro Zavala," of course, is already taken. As Oliver himself had been, kids often enter the program reluctant about the music before learning to love it. "There's a lot of mariachi programs out there, but we're one of the only ones that starts from complete scratch," Oliver says.

Students break out into different rooms with trumpets, violins and harmony classes, each lasting about 45 minutes. Thousands of kids have come through the program since its inception. Oliver points to an old band photo and lists off all the youth who have gone on to become musical instructors and professional performers. Cristina Ceja, Oliver's cousin, started at the academy and is now a violist performing with an orchestra in Europe.   And then there's one kid that Oliver didn't think would last. Sean Oliu watched Golden Era Mexican films with his grandfather and wanted to wear a charro suit like the lead actors. His grandmother knew of Gabriel Zavala and enrolled Oliu when he was 6. "Maestro always did a very good job of getting us all to sing," Oliu says. He belted Vicente Fernandez's "Volver, volver" for his first time out during a Día de los Muertos celebration at the Bowers Museum. "I think I had been in the program for maybe a month!"

A producer from the reality show La Voz Kids called Oliver in 2013 and asked if anybody would be a great contestant. "Sean had this 'can do' attitude since the very beginning," Oliver says. Gabriel volunteered Oliu for the opportunity, and he almost won the Telemundo competition. "It was an amazing and very exciting time," Oliver adds. Oliu is no longer in Rhythmo, but he stays close to the academy and is performing at the mariachi festival.

"We had hoped to do a larger show," Oliver says. "Unfortunately, my father got sick and spent time in the hospital." The family worried if the stress would be too much for their dad and scaled back. The lineup still includes great groups such as Tierra Querida, composed of former Los Camperos members, and Lindas Mexicanas, whose members are daughters of world-famous mariachis. And then, of course, there are the Rhythmo mariachi groups and the Zavala family-formed Mariachi Anacatlan.

"It's 9 already, Maestro," a girl complains after checking her phone. But Gabriel Zavala wants to fine-tune the performance of Mariachi Rosas del Tepeyac, the program's all-girl group. "Ya nos vamos," he says, pleading for patience. They break into "Cielito Lindo." Zavala tries to bring out the theatricality in the girls as they practice call-and-response and prime their gritos.

"I'm really excited for this year's festival," says 16-year-old trumpeter Samantha Cabral after practice.

Adds 16-year-old trumpeter Melissa Vicente, "Maestro's been teaching us all the notes, all the rhythms--he's like, well, the maestro!"

Hearing their praise is music to his ears. "I don't do this for money," Zavala says. "I want the students to remember a man who wanted to construct a better world, one kid at a time."

The 10th-Annual Anaheim Mariachi Festival at Pearson Park Amphitheatre, 401 N. Lemon St., Anaheim, (714) 778-4356; anaheimmariachifestival.com. Sat., 6 p.m. $20-$75. All ages.

See also: The 50 Best Things About the OC Music Scene The 50 Worst Things About the OC Music Scene The 25 Greatest OC Bands of All Time: The Complete List

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