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What's in a Song: High School Mariachi Band

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Our occasional series, "What's in a Song" continues this week with the story of how Mariachi music is inspiring a group of high school immigrants from the Mexican state of Michoacan.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

When teacher Mark Fogelquist began to offer mariachi classes to immigrant high school students he was surprised by what soon began to happen.

Mr. MARK FOGELQUIST (Teacher): When the kids would come up from rural Michoacan, not knowing a word of English, and many of them not knowing the entire alphabet, they would sit in the back of the classroom with their, you know, with their heads bowed down staring at the floor. And when they got into mariachi music their pride came out and it made them feel a strength in who they were.

HANSEN: In this week's What's In A Song, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center, Fogelquist and his students revealed just how much power a song can pack.

Mr. ROBERTO ALVAREZ (Student): Hello, my name is Roberto Alvarez, and I play the guitar for Mariachi Chula Vista.

(Soundbite of music)

ALVAREZ: So this high school, it's about 15 minutes from the U.S./Mexico border in Southern California. The first notes, the trumpet, the violins, all playing together, it just gives you such a feeling of excitement. Such a rush.

(Soundbite of music)

ALEREZ: The title of the song is (foreign language spoken). Cuyutlan is a city in Jalisco, and the first verse says atop of Cuyutlan where they call it hidden waters, is where the sea will take us, the girls from Cuyutlan go to bathe, and they belong to my heart.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTA RAMIREZ(ph) (Musician): Hi. My name is Marta Ramirez and I play the viola and I'm also a singer for Mariachi Chula Vista. It's kind of weird that, like, young kids like us are playing mariachi music since everybody's listening to, like, hip-hop and rap. But, yeah, it makes me proud and it makes my mom proud. And it's like music that came from way back. And it kind of like never dies off.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FOGELQUIST: This group performs every weekend. We've done 110 performances since September, and we do this to raise money to go to mariachi conferences and so forth. So it gives them a goal, but it's also very hard work. When they're on their fifth performance on a Saturday night, you know, they left the house at ten in the morning and its midnight and they're still cranking out songs. Some of them would like to be home, but once they go to a mariachi conference and they feel the power of what they're doing, then the grousing and the complaining stops and they say, we have to do this.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAMIREZ: Before mariachi music, my life was boring, and I didn't do anything. And now I'm playing music and I'm learning stuff. It makes me better in school. I get better grades and I discovered that I have talent.

Mr. ALVAREZ: Mariachi has given me so much potential, even though it's only been about four years. You don't realize how much you've done, how many people you've entertained with the music that you love, how many places that you've gone and seen. It just gives you a great feeling at the end of the day.

HANSEN: What's in a Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center.

(Soundbite of music)

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