Fort Worth — If Mariachi los Camperos promised a high-energy performance on Friday night, they certainly delivered. At one point, Camperos helmsman Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán even appeared to walk offstage for a moment to replace his bow — the first one had been popping hairs since the beginning of the evening. Mariachi Los Camperos, joined on stage by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico, set the tone for a spirited and eclectic weekend at the Bass Performance Hall. The LA-based ensemble opened the three-day Latin Spectacular Festival hosted by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in honor of outgoing Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
In their return appearance at the Bass, Camperos demonstrated that for mariachi performers, one’s skills as an actor are nearly as important as one’s musical abilities. From the first chords of the voluminous rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with which Los Camperos opened the evening, the ensemble captured the attention of the audience. All 12 performers, standing in a semicircle with sombreros propped up in front of their mic stands and “LC” emblazoned on their belt buckles, took turns leading the ensemble, playing solos, and enjoining the audience to interact with the music onstage. Guzmán and fellow Camperos repeatedly acknowledged a particularly enthusiastic group of fans in the balcony. It was this interactive component, the ensemble member’s ability to inspire the audience, on display Friday night, that gives Los Camperos their well-deserved reputation as champions of their art form among a broad public.
Humor ran throughout the performance. When Guzmán welcomed the audience to the show in Spanish, the audience burst into laughter when he handed the microphone to bandmate Raul Cuellar for a similar welcome in English, as both ensemble members joked about the bilingual nature of the event. Cuellar — a San Antonio native — elicited a roar from the house as he asked the Texas audience to prove to his California-born fellow ensemble members that Whataburger makes a better hamburger than In-N-Out. On a couple of occasions, Camperos violinists left the stage and walked into the audience, singing into the mics attached to their violins, high-fiving children in the audience, and waving at loyal fans who knew all the music. Even non-Spanish speakers managed to catch many of the jokes and intuit the drama that Los Camperos imbued in ballads and boleros about lost lovers, broken hearts, and nostalgia for landscapes of the past.
But what has solidified Los Camperos’ reputation as the leading mariachi ensemble in the United States, is their ability to introduce audiences to the incredible breadth and variety of mariachi music through interactive performance. At the Bass they masterfully mixed fan favorites, like “México Lindo y Querido” and “El Son de la Negra,” with lesser known pieces. The styles on stage ranged from sones jalisciences to polkas to huapangos. The ensemble also played music from their new album, De Ayer para Siempre, released on Aug. 23. The album includes a tribute to María Grever, an early 20th-century composer who was one of the first Mexican female composers to receive international attention. On Friday, in honor of Grever, Los Camperos played a mariachi version of her song “Júrame.” Guzmán introduced the song to the audience by describing Grever as one of the most cutting-edge composers of her day, a statement greeted with enthusiasm from the house. In many of the songs, audience members sang and whistled along as aficionados added their voices to the musicians’, but audience attention was equally rapt when Los Camperos played new pieces. It is this musical breadth and eclecticism paired with commanding — and humorous — stage presence that makes Los Camperos foremost pioneers in shaping mariachi as an art form.
When Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico dancers took the stage with the musicians, the natural alliance between dance and mariachi was on full view. “Viva Chihuahua,” with an exciting percussive beat driven both by the musicians and the stomps of the dancers, was perhaps the most rousing moment of the evening. As Los Camperos’ musical selections demanded absolute rhythmic synchronicity and flawless bow and finger work, the ANMBF dancers proved up to the challenge. Their own dizzying footwork and precise movements enhanced the music as the lightning-fast tempos sent the billowy skirts of the female dancers flying. Three couples from the company performed dances in a variety of styles. Costumes ranged from simple checkered tops and capped sleeves to the colorful dresses hemmed with ribbons that are iconic ballet folklórico. The decision to include Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico on the program allowed the audience to experience mariachi in one of its best expressions: as an accompaniment to dance.
The evening was also a tribute to bilingualism and blended cultural traditions. Miguel Harth-Bedoya was greeted joyfully as he addressed the audience first in Spanish as he introduced Mariachi Los Camperos. The elements of the ballet folklórico performance, including the men’s costumes, called to mind folk dances that are common north of the Rio Grande. The ensemble sent a powerful message that music transcends borders as audiences sang along equally enthusiastically (though somewhat more solemnly) to the “Star-Spangled Banner” as they did to “Viva México,” with which they closed it.
The Latin Spectacular Festival continues tonight with “Azul and Night of the Mayas,” featuring FWSO conducted by Harth-Bedoya, cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi, hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista performing works by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. On Sunday the festival concludes with a night of jazz, tango and Caribbean music as the FWSO performs with Cuban-born saxophonist, clarinetist and composer Paquito D’Rivera.