Walking into Don Chente is like walking into another world. Caddy corner from Staples Center, the restaurant looks like an imposing club – all mirrors and velvet red carpeting – but when I ask where I can leave my bike, the woman at the front is warm and welcoming.
I’m here meeting Susie Garcia of Mariachi Las Colibrí. She is sitting with José Martínez of Mariachi Vargas deTecalitlán, who is visiting from Mexico, and the first layer of ice is broken when they learn this blue-eyed gringo speaks Spanish. We order beers and eye-openingly spicy shrimp called Camarones Aguachiles. They both laugh at my reaction as I unwittingly pop a whole shrimp in my mouth and do a double take.
We’re here to see Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar play, but they have popped down to Carson for a gig, literally between shows here at Don Chente, where they play at 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and 12 a.m., Friday through Sunday. Four gigs in five hours – such is the life of the mariachi!
As we eat and wait for Mariachi Garibaldi to return, Susie tells me about the show she is organizing with Ford on the Road that pays tribute to mariachi legend Nati Cano, who passed away less than a year ago. An earlier version of ¡Viva la Tradición! that was presented at the Ford three years ago featured Nati and Los Camperos but this year’s show will mark the first time that over 60 of his friends and students will come together to celebrate Nati’s life.
Nati could be a tyrant in the rehearsal room, Susie says, always striving to break the street musician reputation of mariachis by creating the highest quality music possible. But he was also famous for giving people a chance – especially women, who have traditionally been excluded from the mariachi scene.
Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar
Susie also has noticed greater interest in mariachi among young people in LA – perhaps because of what she sees as a renewed sense of cultural pride. This shift could have been influenced by a change in where mariachis play; Nati’s restaurant, La Fonda, helped bring mariachi music out of adult-only bars and into spaces for the whole family.
José chimes in that mariachis are populist musicians who play hits that the crowd knows, like cover bands. But the skill or artistry lies in the arranger for each group, who can take that same hit song and turn it into a romance, a ballad, a ranchero – anything. In this way, mariachis become their own DJs, remixing popular songs, creating totally new experiences.
At 10:15 p.m., Mariachi Garibaldi take the stage and I get to see this populist spirit live on through Jaime Cuéllar, a 10-year student of Nati’s. I was impressed that just about every member of the group put down their instrument at some point to sing a solo, with the other musicians cheering them on.
This sense of honoring each others’ talent even extended to the audience. Garibaldi members serenaded audience members with birthdays and got a few musicians in the crowd, including my new friend José, up to sing solos of their own. Far from karaoke, these were master musicians in their own right being honored as part of the community.
I left full of both food and music, and looking forward to ¡Viva la Tradición! on July 25. To recreate the full restaurant experience, Don Chente will be on hand, contributing to a fair atmosphere, with food, drinks and crafts for kids. VIP tickets will net audiences tequila and tacos for what Susie calls, “the ultimate mariachi experience.”