Mariachi rhythms for Korean amigos

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Mariachi rhythms for Korean amigos


While the rhythms and slow drumbeats echoed through the hall of a subway station several stories below ground, dozens of passersby and a few earnest fans watched the four-person mariachi band performing “Besame Mucho,” the signature Mexican song of love and separation.
“Besame, besame mucho, every time I bring you a kiss, I hear divine music. if you should leave me, my life would be through.”
The last song of the show was followed by raucus clapping, with the spectators calling for an encore. In appreciation of the roaring cheers, the Mexican band Mariachi Latin performed a Spanish translation of “Eomeona,” a recent hit here with a Korean bbongjjak (Asian-style trot) rhythms.
Throughout the mini-recital, the spectators were thrilled by the unfamiliar style, language and appearance of the mariachis. Mexican culture ― or Latin culture and the Spanish language in general ― is still an enigma to most Koreans, who have never seen stylish charro suits ornamented with embroidery and silver buttons, warm, colorful ponchos and wide sombrero hats.
Mariachi Latin has been many Koreans’ first live encounter with the long folk tradition of mariachis and their string ensemble performance, something different than what they’ve seen of Mexico in movies.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen mariachis performing” said Lee Seong-hyeon, a student. “It’s unique, it’s fun.” She said she wanted to see the performance again and jotted down the band’s Web site.
Despite the dearth of interest in Latin American culture here, Mariachi Latin, perhaps the only mariachi band performing regularly in Korea, is seeing a rise in popularity. Many visitors and fans visit the band’s Web site to check out its performance schedule and to post messages lauding the musicians.
Mariachi Latin comprises four Mexican musicians: Arturo Garcia Altamirano plays the piano and the guitarron, a large deep-voiced guitar; Gerardo Mancilla Sanchez, the trumpet and percussion; Raul Cortes Hernandez, the violin and percussion, and main vocalist Wignard Valdez Soto plays the vihuela, a high-pitched, round-back guitar. They are all from Mexico City, the nation’s capital.
Although there are a few theories about the origin of the word “mariachi,” it is believed that the word comes from “mariage,” meaning marriage in French, because the bands play at wedding ceremonies. Most mariachi bands consist of three to 12 people and play Mexican folk and modern Latin music.
Mariachis often accent special moments in the lives of Mexican people, such as playing music for newlyweds. They also act as messengers of love, playing serenata, or serenades, on the street beneath the windows of a young women to stir her heart, hopefully in the direction of the young man who is paying the band.
Mariachi Latin started performing in subway and train stations, but also occasionally played at high schools, in September last year. The four play traditional Mexican folk music, Latin, salsa and Cuban music as well as modern Mexican music. Their repertoire includes “La Cucaracha,” “Cielito Lindo,” “Las Golondrinas” and “Serenata Huasteca.”
The band’s members had to go audition in Mexico before they signed a one-year contract with the band’s manager, Kwon Yong-min, who brought them to Korea. The band underwent a second audition, this time in front of officials from Rail Art, an art foundation that organizes arts and performances in subway and train stations in Korea.
“I loved Mexican music and wanted to share it with a Korean audience,” Mr. Kwon said. He first went to study and live in Mexico in 1997. Since then, he has lived in the country for a total of five years, earning residency status.
All four musicians were formally educated in music in Mexico and worked as musicians or school music teachers before coming to Korea. Mr. Hernandez had even performed outside Mexico, taking part in a tour of Europe and Canada as a member of the mariachi band, Xochipitzahuatl.
“There are all kinds of traditional performances and performers in Europe from around the world,” said Mr. Hernandez. “It’s more liberal and open, and there are no restrictions in terms of where we were allowed to perform.” Mariachis perform most frequently in Europe and in North and South America, he added.
A number of Peruvian-Andean music groups have performed in Korea, but mariachis are relatively rare, Mr. Kwon said. According to Jeong Gwan-hi, a Rail Art official, there are about 10 Peruvian-Andean music performers registered with Rail Art, but there is only one mariachi band.
The unfamiliarity with Mexican culture and mariachi music has been a small blessing amid much difficulty. “Because Koreans are unfamiliar with our music, they seem to be more enthusiastic,” said Mr. Sanchez, who took a year-long break from teaching music at a middle school in Mexico to be in the group.
The band’s anonymity, however, limited the scope of its activity and hurt the team’s finances, which are managed by Mr. Kwon. The band’s biggest source of income is from performances at schools and at cultural events in public places such zoos and theme parks, though CD sales also help.
“We are barely surviving,” Mr. Kwon said. He added that he has been losing money for the last four months, and that he had to dip into his personal savings to pay the musicians’ wages.
The musicians say they are happy to live and perform in Korea. They say Korean cities are safe enough for them to walk around at night and people are warm, although some people “don’t have manners.”
One thing that they are quite satisfied with is the amount of money they have received. After all, they came here to work. “There is less work but more money here,” Mr. Soto said.
According to Mr. Kwon, the musicians are earning more money than they would in Mexico because wages there are relatively low. In addition, mariachis generally earn more than other Latin American musicians when they perform outside their country because Mexico is better-off economically than many other Latin American nations.
They say the most enjoyable shows they have had were at girl’s high schools in Bucheon and Incheon. “The reception was exceptionally good. I felt like I was a star, so I performed with more enthusiasm,” Mr. Soto said.
One big problem they have is that despite the warm receptions and calls for encores, it’s difficult to to communicate with the audience aside from their music.
“I wanted to talk to the audience, but there were few people who could speak Spanish,” Mr. Soto said.
Asked what and where they are going to do next, Mr. Sanchez said, “Music is my calling and I am going to play music wherever people want my music.”

Art hitches a ride on the subway

The Rail Art foundation, a non-profit foundation established in 1999, organized its first performance in 2000. More than 500 artists and groups have registered with the foundation, including 300 artists and performers in Seoul alone. All artists that wish to perform in subway and train stations need to obtain approval from Rail Art and go through auditions.
The final decision on whether to allow an artist or group to perform in the stations is made after each candidate performs on a stage in Sadang station on the No. 2 and No. 4 lines, and depends on the quality of the performance and reception of the audience and passersby. All the performance are voluntary and the artists are not paid. There are around 30 performances each day in 10 locations, with more performances occurring in summer.
The major locations for performances are the Sadang, Eulgiro 1-ga, Dongdaemun Stadium, Wangshimni, Hapjeong and Chungmuro subway stations and the Seoul and Yongsan train stations.
For more information, visit or call Jeong Gwan-hi at (0505) 282-0797 or (02) 595-9574.

by Limb Jae-un

For performance schedules and more information, visit or call the manager at 011-9123-4047.
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