For one hour every Wednesday night at Tomasita’s, the clink of silverware and hum of conversation fade into the background, giving way to the chords of six stringed instruments—three violins, a bass, a guitar and a vihuela, or small Mexican rhythm guitar. But although the sounds are familiar, this mariachi band is different: Instead of sombreros, its members wear makeup, sparkly earrings and hot-pink scarves.
Santa Fe-based Mariachi Buenaventura is New Mexico’s only all-female mariachi group. This year, the group hopes to record its second CD and, next year, will perform with a folkloric dance troupe at the 2012 Olympics. SFR chats with Joanna Alvarez-Reyes, 26, who founded Mariachi Buenaventura in 2005.
SFR: What was it like to start an all-female mariachi group?
JAR: For the longest time, we couldn’t get enough girls. Girls would come and practice, and then they’d never show up again. After a while, this guy who was going to be our [band] director said, ‘You guys are just going to have to go coed. There’s no girls.’ So we found guys, and we had a little group for a while. We didn’t last very long; I don’t even think it was a full year. One night, we kind of got into an argument and the guys decided to quit. We decided to see if we could find more girls. But our bass player had quit and, at that time, it was impossible to find a girl bass.
So how’d you find one?
The guy that quit, our bass player, [said], ‘I know a girl. I don’t know how to get ahold of her; I don’t have her number or anything. All I know is she works at Dairy Queen in Pecos.’ So I go and get the phone book and I call Dairy Queen, and I’m like, ‘Is this Venessa?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And I’m like, ‘Um, do you want to join a group?’ She thought it was one of her friends playing a joke on her. We went to Pecos, found her, brought her back and practiced with her.
Are all-female mariachi bands common?
Not super-common, but it’s kind of a growing thing right now. You see them more in Tucson, Los Angeles and maybe El Paso, Texas. Here in New Mexico, we’re still the only ones.
Are there any songs people always request, like ‘La Bamba?’
Yeah. We try to at least learn some of the standards, classic mariachi ones that everybody knows. But the mariachi repertoire is ginormous, and basically people expect you to be like a human jukebox. You’re never really done practicing, and you’re never really done learning new ones because just when you think you know enough, somebody comes out with this random song, and you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot! We don’t know it.’
Has the recession affected the mariachi business?
We did kind of feel it. Before, people had no problem with [hiring us] for two hours, three hours, whatever. Now, when we tell them we charge $300 [per hour], they’re like, ‘Do you do half-hours?’ But luckily business hasn’t stopped.
Have you raised your prices since you started?
Yeah. When we first started, we used to charge really cheap because we didn’t really have a big repertoire. Our first gig we did together as the girl group, I think we had like nine or 10 songs, and they hired us for one hour. Thank God that it was in a huge place and we were able to play the same nine songs in different areas, over and over again, just to get through the hour.
How many songs do you know now?
About 100. We have enough to at least do four hours without repeating.
If I wanted to learn to play mariachi-style music, where could I go?
Call me! We don’t really have any formal classes or anything, but if [you’re] willing to learn a certain instrument in the group, just call me.