The music directors of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán — known far and wide as “The World’s Greatest Mariachi” — cast a wide-brimmed shadow. Since its founding in 1898 in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the group has had only five music directors. The fourth, Don Jose “Pepe” Martinez, led the group from 1975 to 2014. Rubén Fuentes, who joined Mariachi Vargas as a violinist at age 18 in 1944, became the third music director in 1950. Though he stepped down from active duty 30 years ago, Fuentes at 89 continues to serve as the group’s owner, producer and arranger.
So when violinist Carlos Martinez, 35, who has 20 years of professional experience as a mariachi performer, took over last year from his Uncle Pepe, he knew he had a tough act to follow. Not just as the successor of greats — as the leader of Mariachi Vargas, he’s upholding a century of tradition and safeguarding mariachi’s status as Mexico’s national music. Ahead of the group’s concert Oct. 31 at Symphony Center, Martinez spoke about Mariachi Vargas’ past and future:
How does it feel to be following in the footsteps of giants?
I feel very fortunate to be responsible for the best mariachi in the world. I’ve tried to bring all my heart, talent and ability to the job. It is a great responsibility, but I feel comfortable in the role.
What has your first year as music director been like?
Actually, very complicated [he laughs]. Logistically, I’ve always been based out of Guadalajara, while Mariachi Vargas is based in Mexico City. So that has been hard on me. Musically, Mariachi Vargas performs often with symphonies, which is another level of difficulty when performing. There are lots of moving parts [laughs].
Mariachi Vargas has introduced many songs into the repertoire; do you have a favorite?
“Son de la Negra” [often called “La Negra” and written by Rubén Fuentes] because it’s very important to our history and to mariachi music in general, so it must be a part of every show. It’s so well-known, almost every mariachi group will play it in concert.
What else can your Chicago fans expect to hear at Symphony Center?
We will perform songs from our latest album, titled “16 Razones Para Cortarse Las Venas” [“16 Reasons to Cut Your Veins” — that is, songs of heartbreak]. It includes songs like “Se Me Hizo Fácil” and “Por Tu Maldito Amor,” which were popularized by [ranchera music icon] Vicente Fernandez.
And of course songs by Rubén Fuentes. How is he doing?
He’s doing well. Although he’s almost 90, in many ways, he’s the youngster of the group. After a long recording session, when everyone’s dragging, he will challenge us to keep up. He can go a whole week like that. He has amazing energy.
Last year brought the death of Miguel Martinez, a member of Mariachi Vargas in the ’50s and a pivotal figure in introducing the trumpet to mariachi. Did you ever work with him?
No, but he was a very important musician in our history. [They were not related.] He died on Dec. 5, which happened to be the [61st] anniversary of the death of Jorge Negrete, Don Miguel’s favorite singer. They were close friends, and he had performed with him during his years in Mariachi Vargas. After watching two Negrete movies on television [in which he appeared with the singer], Don Miguel died of a massive heart attack at age 93.
Speaking of Jorge Negrete, he’s one of the many legendary singers Mariachi Vargas has accompanied over its long career. Who else would you like to collaborate with?
It would be great to perform with Vicente Fernandez [who retired from the stage in 2013], and of course, El Último, Juan Gabriel [with whom Mariachi Vargas has recorded and appeared in concert over the years]. But we’re doing our second disc with [Latin pop superstar] Luis Miguel. It’s a follow-up to the 2004 album “Mexico en la Piel.” Among the younger artists, he has really done much to bring mariachi to new generations.
Very few popular music forms have endured for more than a century. How does mariachi continue to thrive?
It’s music that is close to the heart and soul, especially the compositions of José Alfredo Jiménez [widely regarded as the most important composer of ranchera music in the 20th century]. Mariachi has gained respect not just in Mexico but also in the United States, South America and all over the world. It all goes back to great writers. Most important is how the music was written. True emotion is what resonates with people. Mariachi is part of every stage of existence, from birthdays to weddings to funerals. In essence, it is the music of one’s life.
Note: A pre-concert performance from 2:15-2:45 p.m. in Symphony Center’s first floor rotunda will feature students from the Chicago Mariachi Project’s Mariachi Academy.