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 93 continues to serve as the group’s producer and arranger.
So when violinist Carlos Martinez, who has more than 20 years of professional experience as a mariachi performer, took over in 2014 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 Feb. 15 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.
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 recent albums, such as “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?
Although he’s almost 94 [his birthday is Feb. 15], 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.
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.
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.