Nestled in a corner hugging the 5 freeway, parents and their children file into a rehearsal studio in Anaheim. The city's 6th annual mariachi festival is days away and young Latino musicians are readying for the occasion. Trumpets blare, vihuelas strum and Spanish lyrics harmonize under the direction of Gabriel Zavala whom students affectionately refer to as "El Maestro." Members of Mariachi Puño de Oro and Rhythmo Mariachi Kids fill the rehearsal room and practice for Sunday's stage show at Pearson Park Amphitheater. The annual Anaheim Mariachi Festival has been a growing cultural institution, but this year, in a savvy move, it has changed its date to coincide with the times of Día de los Muertos celebrations around Southern California.
"We went to the Hollywood Forever celebration last year," says El Maestro's daughter Laura Zavala-Perez, "and we said, "Why doesn't Anaheim ever have anything?" Seeing events in north Orange County's surrounding communities only led to more motivation. "Let's stop complaining about it," Zavala-Perez says of the organizing attitude behind this year's effort, "Let's bring it!" Out of that determination, ¡Viva Los Muertos! A Day of the Dead Mariachi Celebration was born. In addition to a youth mariachi competition, danza Azteca, ballet folklorico and a main stage line-up of musicians, altars to the deceased will be exhibited in the festival's merging spirit.
¡Viva Los Muertos! is also shaking things up and broadening its appeal by inviting some special guests who don't fit the traditional mold of a mariachi music celebrations. Alongside Anaheim's Mariachi Anacatlan and singer Chris Reza, Sunday's performances will include sets by El Conjunto Nueva Ola and English crooning punks Mariachi El Bronx."On a whim I made some phone calls and I got their management," El Maestro's son Oliver Zavala, President of R.H.Y.T.H.M.O. Inc. and Festival Chairman says of the latter band. "Surprisingly, they were very honored by the fact that, in their eyes, the real deal, real mariachis invited them to come to a mariachi festival."
mask adorning members of El Conjunto Nueva Ola don't play mariachi music at all. "I saw them performing in downtown Santa Ana about a month or so ago," says Zavala, a former trumpeter with Save Ferris and current musician with Mariachi Anacatlan and Starpool. "I heardcumbia
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and said, "Wait a minute, isn't that Funky Town?'" The genre-mashing new wavers very much understand the true mission of the festival, though, and are playing without compensation.
All proceeds from Sunday's event will directly benefit the Rhythmo Inc. Mariachi Academy whose guiding mission has been "putting instruments of hope into the hands of our children" since its inception fifteen years ago in 1996. "Many of our children who learn the basic music education directed by Oliver and Maestro, they can use those skills in any kind of music and in fact do," says parent and Board Member Robbie Hernandez-Oliu whose son is in the academy. "The last thing that I want to mention about the program that I've seen is that our children walk away with such confidence because they immediately put our children onstage and they rise to the occasion."
The boost, it is hoped, will manifest in other avenues such as school and even civic engagement. Who knows? As Oliver Zavala muses, perhaps a future mayor of Anaheim is playing violin in the rehearsal studio next door. "A child who can get up on stage," Zavala-Perez adds, "is going to raise their hand in a classroom."
¡Viva Los Muertos! A Day of the Dead Mariachi Celebration takes place at the Pearson Park Amphitheater, 401 N. Lemon Street, Anaheim; www.anaheimmariachi.com. Sun., 12 p.m. - 8 p.m. $15-$100. All Ages.