On Super Bowl Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams will suit up to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on their home turf at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium.
But the football players won’t be on the only squad decked out in the team’s trademark royal blue and gold. The team’s Mariachi Rams band also will don their uniforms and perform during the tailgate festivities in the stadium parking lot before the big game.
Among the band members performing will be Cal Poly Pomona alumnus Christopher Rubalcava (’17, music industry studies), a trumpet player and vocalist. Rubalcava has been a part of Mariachi Rams since it was formed three seasons ago, performing all genres of music, from mariachi classics to rap and R&B.
The band is popular with football fans and players alike, even prompting Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey to request a custom made Mariachi Rams suit of his own.
“It is crazy,” Rubalcava said. “We get accepted by everyone. It amazes me.”
“The team brought us in to meet the demographic,” Rubalcava said. “There are a lot of Latinos that are football fans, but we are appreciated by everyone. When we are playing songs that are universally known, like ‘Cielito Lindo,’ we get the whole stadium singing along.”
The group of nine musicians perform on the field at every Rams home game, typically at the end of the first and third quarters, to crowds as large as 70,000. They also have been added to pre-game festivities in the stadium, Rubalcava said.
Mariachi Rams has played at multiple events across Southern California this week designed to get fans hyped for the Super Bowl. Aside from the traditional mariachi music, the band also plays contemporary styles. Rubalcava even found himself rapping during a recent performance.
“We are pushing the boundaries,” he said. “We rapped Dr. Dre’s ‘California Love’ in front of 70,000 people. I had to do it justice, so I tried to sell it. It means a lot that we are able to show we can do more than the typical songs.”
Rubalcava’s mentor José Hernández, whose Mariachi Sol de México is one of the preeminent mariachi bands in the world, founded the NFL team’s band.
Rubacalva has been performing in front of audiences since he was in junior high, so he doesn’t typically get anxious before a show. But, he says, it is sometimes a bit surreal to watch actors on televisions shows the night before a game and then see those same famous faces shown on the jumbotron in their skyboxes, Rubalcava said.
“They put them on the screen right before we play and it makes me nervous,” he said.
Rubalcava recently spotted another familiar face at the stadium, running into fellow alumnus Isaac Gomez (’17, music industry studies), who is doing some behind the scenes production work for the Super Bowl.
When it comes to Mariachi Rams’ diverse musical style, Rubalcava feels right at home. He credits his ability to incorporate mariachi with a variety of styles, in part, from his time at Cal Poly Pomona. The university’s band Mariachi Los Broncos, under the direction of Music Professor Jessie Vallejo, formed in 2016 with Rubalcava as one of the original 16 members.
“Dr. Vallejo helped me understand lots of traditional mariachi concepts,” he said, “but then being in jazz band also gave me different fundamentals I need.”
Vallejo, also a mariachi musician, recalled how when she created Mariachi de los Broncos, she was afraid she wouldn’t have any trumpet players, which are often in short supply when it comes to gigs. Rubalcava showed up, and he wasn’t alone.
“He was just a phenomenal singer,” she said. “He was an incredible trumpet player and he brought friends who also could play. He was just a team player from the start.”
Rubalcava became an unofficial trumpet section leader, helping other students master the style and songs.
“Having someone like Christopher leading a section meant I could delegate to him,” Vallejo said, adding that Rubalcava compiled a trumpet mariachi resource webpage for his senior project that she and students still use.
Rubalcava, who has been playing the trumpet for 22 years, is still teaching. He teaches in Mariachi Heritage Society’s afterschool program in the Santa Ana Unified School District, working with students ages 8 to 11. Mariachi Heritage Society was founded by his mentor Hernández.
The overwhelming majority of students in Santa Ana are Latino, so the afterschool program offers them an additional way to tap into their cultural traditions, he said.
“It’s really nice being able to pass down the torch,” Rubalcava said.
That spirit of passing on the love of music is somewhat how Rubalcava became interested in playing the trumpet.
His father is a musician who plays guitar, piano and drums, but it was a mysterious box that his godfather gave to Rubalcava’s father that set him on his musical path.
“He gave my dad a trumpet, which my dad always kept in a big red box,” Rubalcava said. “It was kind of this mythical thing.”
After his brothers tried the horn but quickly lost interest, the then 10-year-old asked his father for his turn with the instrument. He embraced it right away, and while at one of his father’s gigs when he was 15, he found his first mariachi teacher in the band, Santiago Garcia. Rubalcava’s parents are from Mexico, and he saw mariachi music as a cool way to represent his culture.
“Right away, I fell in love,” he said of music. “It is a musical journey. You always try to get better every day. I found my passion in the trumpet.”