Corazon y alma: Mariachi Quetzal can coax a grito mexicano from even the gringos
It was a late weekend night in March 2012 at the Labb, a little bar in downtown Denton. A nice crowd lined the bar, some eyes cast up at one of the many television screens — all of them tuned to a sports channel.
Other people mingled, drawing long drags from their cigarettes, tipping back dark brown beer bottles and shouting toward one another’s ears. The city was deep into 35 Denton music festival, and the band at the Labb was deafening.
Not a single instrument was plugged in.
Denton’s Mariachi Quetzal serenades diners at The Victoria in Flower Mound. The local band whips local bar patrons into a frenzy. Photo by Ed Steele.
Mariachi Quetzal was going full tilt – trumpets blaring, violins in soprano and vihuelas and guitarron keeping time. And then there was the audience. Kids with blue stripes in their hair. White-haired couples and hipster college kids – all of them losing their minds. One woman was improvising a salsa-style solo dance. And as the musicians traded vocal solos in Spanish, dark haired guys let fly with their best chiflas and their grito mexicano.
Mariachi Quetzal formed about five years ago. A group of University of North Texas College of Music students and alumni — Hispanic and white — had a soft spot for the Mexican folk music, known for it’s mournful sound, drinking song choruses and triumphant flourishes.
When Mariachi Quetzal performs, the band wears the charro dress. Black coats and slacks — floor-length skirts for the women — trimmed out with embroidered seams and big, ruffled bow ties.
The band mixes instrumental songs — “La Fiesta,” — with traditional folks songs, such as “El Pajaro Cu” and “Contigo Aprendi” Like a lot of their peers in the Denton music scene, the musicians of Mariachi Quetzal have an inventive streak, which explains the band’s fitting treatment of the famous Johnny Cash favorite “Ring of Fire.”
When Mariachi Quetzal plays, it is utterly in the moment. Violinist and vocalist Sarah Baez articulates her phrases with convincing Spanish, but it’s her incredible sustains that really impress. The same goes for violinist and singer Alexia Quintero. When either woman narrates the tear-in-your-cerveza tales of abandonment, unrequited passion or dire loneliness, they keep their intonation tight. At bars such as Dan’s Silverleaf, where patrons cheer, whistle and hoist glasses, Baez turns into an inresistable tease, coating those last words with a theatrical ache. It’s rare for men in the bar not to answer. We’ve seen even gringos with loosened neckties wail — aaaaahhhh-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaa! — when Baez holds a note longer than seems humanly possible. The guys in the group — especially trumpeters James Kerr and Josh Garza (who isn’t presently a full-time member of the band) — bump up the flirtation between cantante femenina and audience with real hot-and-bothered brass. Just when the ladies start to feel a little neglected, violinist Travis Hernandez takes over. He’s more restrained than Baez, but his heartfelt vocals get a rise out of women in the audience. Then comes blond haired, blue eyed Kerr. His boyish looks don’t prepare you for the baritone that makes Mariach Quetzal’s “Ring of Fire” a story not so much about a reprobate, as Cash’s version proposes, but a hurting man’s grieving.
The musicians deliver each song sincerely, playing up the passions in the form without veering into parody. It helps that the songs themselves are nearly prayers of petition. “El Pajaro Cu” is the plea of someone for a pretty, colorful bird to carry a message of devotion and desire to the real beautiful bird in question — a woman with skin the color of gold and the blackest eyes. “Contigo Aprendi” is a lover’s declaration of the knowledge that comes with true love – how kisses can feel like a religious experience and how intimacy can feel like the new birth of a better self.
The Denton band is accustomed to accolades. It earned a 2012 Dallas Observer Music Awards nomination for Best Latino/Tejano Act. Two-time Denton Grammy Award-winner Bubba Hernandez has booked the band to open for one of his Latin acts, Los Super Vatos. None of the love has made the musicians too big for their pantalones. They play weddings, quinceaneras and have even played a funeral. For the last two Halloweens, they’ve painted their faces in full sugar skull style and roamed the crowd at Denton’s Day of the Dead. Last year, they couldn’t even be drowned out by a big, loud Brazilian percussion ensemble from UNT.
For the premium placed on “honesty” in the music created in the Denton music scene, Mariachi Quetzal might stand as the shining example of everything that means. The band isn’t represented by a label and it doesn’t produce albums. But when Mariachi Quetzal takes the stage (or the pavement, or a patch of grass at a festival) you’ll be Mexican to the marrow of your bones, even if your last name is O’Connell.
Mariachi Quetzal plays at noon on Sunday, March 10, at Dan’s Silverleaf day party.
They’re with the band