The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family extends its condolences on the death of Don José “Pepe” Martínez, the longtime music director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. One of the greats of the contemporary mariachi music scene, he passed away late Saturday, April 23, after being hospitalized for over a week in Guadalajara, México, due to complications from diabetes and pneumonia.
A composer, arranger and violinist, Don José led Mariachi Vargas in its annual appearances at Symphony Center. The group’s music director since 1975 (and only its fourth since the ensemble’s founding in 1897), he stepped down as after the 2013-14 season, though he continued to work with the ensemble, regarded as “The World’s Greatest Mariachi.”
“It seems like his body was simply shutting down. … We all had hopes that he would get through this. But God called on him and needed him in heaven to direct a chorus of angels,” said Álvaro R. Obregón, president and founder of the Chicago Mariachi Project, which had worked closely with Mariachi Vargas over the years.
Don José will lie in state Monday, April 25, at the Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara, one of México’s most beautiful concert halls, and host venue of the annual mariachi festival Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi y la Charreria.
Born on June 27, 1941, in Tecalitlán, Jalisco, México, he was the son of a musician and began his own musical studies as a child. “I started singing on the buses in Guadalajara when I was 10 years old,” he said in an interview published on the site mariarchimusic.com. His father wanted him to learn the guitar, “but I liked the violin, so I left for school to study the violin.” After joining Mariachi Vargas, he helped to shape the group’s current sound. Later, he co-wrote “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), billed as the world’s first mariachi opera, and followed it with a second in the genre, “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” (“The Past Is Never Finished”). Both works were presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, with “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” receiving its world premiere there last year.
Now led by Carlos Martínez, nephew of Don José, Mariachi Vargas will return Oct. 2 for its annual engagement at Symphony Center.