Mexican Music for Life’s Milestones
By Adriane Quinlan
Rock stars play in clubs, orchestras play in concert halls, and mariachis play anywhere, everywhere, from morning till night. On your average Saturday, Mariachi Real de Mexico, an 8-to-12-man band founded in 1991, plays five gigs across New York — zooming around town in a GMC Yukon that sports the license plate “MARIACHI.” They have booked up to 10 shows on a single day; graced Chinese weddings, traditional quinceañeras and Carnegie Hall; and performed for the pleasure of Henry A. Kissinger, Bruce Springsteen and one particularly lucky pup. “We asked, ‘Where’s the birthday person?’” remembered Ramon Ponce Jr., 37, the bandleader, chuckling. “And it was a birthday party for a dog.”
In Mexico, where mariachi originated as a folk style, bands traditionally play baby showers, communions, weddings and funerals. “There’s a saying that mariachi will follow a Mexican all through his life,” said the photographer Paola Núñez Solorio, who was pleased to find mariachi in New York after moving here from her hometown in Morelia, Mexico. She followed 15 local groups over a two-year period, including Mariachi Real.
The resulting images are quieter than their boisterous subject matter might suggest: Mr. Ponce’s brother Miguel pauses as he waits to perform; a Long Island bride smiles at the band; another group, Mariachi Tapatio, plays in slim black suits on the Day of the Dead. Mr. Ponce stresses that traditional mariachi is a far cry from the cartoonish subway-platform stereotype. His band wears custom-made outfits bedecked with sterling-silver buttons, has played with Plácido Domingo and has never busked on the No. 1 train.
But mariachis do love a good surprise. Recently, the group shocked a band member on his birthday. “He started to cry,” Mr. Ponce remembered. “And he said, ‘Now I know how people feel when we come to their houses.’”