Ethnomusicology Professor Jessie Vallejo got an inkling during a live teaching demonstration that students wanted to see mariachi music come to Cal Poly Pomona.
Although the demonstration, which was part of the interview process for her job, was on Chinese music, the initial question raised by a student in the classroom was not.
“The first question from a student was about mariachi,” Vallejo says. “Part of the job description was being able to run an ensemble, with a Latin American ensemble preferred. I got the sense that students were asking for a mariachi ensemble.”
And eight months after Vallejo began teaching on campus, Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona is in full swing. The ensemble has done a few performances on campus but is gearing up to play its first full concert on Tuesday, May 31.
“With us being a Hispanic-serving institution, that designation calls for the support of the Latino community on campus,” she says. “The ensemble provides opportunities for students across different majors. It promotes cultural awareness and appreciation.”
Students auditioned at the end of the fall quarter for the new 16-member ensemble. The program took off after that, with students working hard to learn the music and performing for a few organizations on campus to get acclimated.
Luis Infante, a fourth-year student majoring in accounting and music education, has played the guitar for 10 years. However when it came time to assign instruments, he found himself holding a vihuela, a guitar-like five-stringed instrument with a rounded back.
“It was a little bit of a transition,” he says.
Infante says he heard about the ensemble auditions and was curious. He wanted to learn more about the music that is so much a part of his Mexican heritage, he says. The classical guitarist says what he has enjoyed most about being a part of the ensemble is getting to learn new forms of music.
“Each type of music develops a different aspect of a musician,” he adds. “I’ve become more rhythmically proficient.”
Infante also has had to develop some vocal chops, as everyone in a mariachi ensemble is expected to sing.
“I sing as lightly as possible,” he says, with a laugh.
A typical mariachi ensemble has three to six violins, one to three trumpets, a guitarrón (bass guitar), a guitar and one vihuela.
Vallejo says the harp also is making a comeback in mariachi. She is working to get a Jalisco harp for the students to play to provide a depth of sound.
This isn’t the first time Cal Poly Pomona has had a mariachi ensemble. An earlier incarnation of the Mariachi Los Broncos began in the 1970s, but it dissolved in the early 2000s.
Vallejo says she is researching the previous group but believes it disbanded for lack of a full-time faculty member to keep it going.
She has received tons of support from the mariachi community, the college and fellow faculty members.
Vallejo has twice had Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, Grammy Award-winning musical director of Mariachi Los Camperos De Nati Cano, come in and give a master class to her students. Vallejo, who began teaching at Cal Poly Pomona in the fall of 2015, previously worked with Guzmán at UCLA, where she co-directed Mariachi de Uclatlán with the noted musician and teacher.
The College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences helped secure funding for new instruments and mariachi suits, Vallejo says. Reception on campus has been great too, with the ensemble already booked for several concerts in the fall.
“Sometimes in a music department when it’s a style that is in the oral tradition, it is hard to fit in with the more traditional programs, but faculty have been very supportive,” she says. “Professors have encouraged students to take the course.”
Music Professor Rickey Badua, who directs the wind ensemble and concert band, says he knows some of the students in the mariachi ensemble.
The students are very engaged in learning mariachi and feel very successful because they are picking it up quickly, Badua says. That is a testament to Vallejo’s ability to teach musicians at varying levels of experience at the same time and ready them to play a form of music many have not played before, he adds.
“What’s great about Jessie is that she is a practicing performer of mariachi, so she brings not only classroom knowledge, but also practical, real-world experience,” he says. “You can tell she has taught by her ability to bring students up to a level for mariachi. I have the deepest admiration and respect for her.”
Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona’s performance is at 8 p.m. in the Music Recital Hall. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the Box Office in Building 24, room 188, in person weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. or online at csupomona.tix.com. Parking is $7.