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Sunday, June 7, 2020

Western’s mariachi band takes the stage with traditional instruments

By Atticus Everett

In a crowd of kids and parents dressed to see “Coco” on the Fairhaven Village Green, the members of Mariachi Bahίa Azul look like a scene from the movie on the park lawn. Dressed in their black and silver vestuarios, Alondra Sanchez, Beatrice Davis, Joan Banel and Gaby Salazar took the stage at the Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema.

Both Sanchez and Davis carried instruments acquired by Flor Reyes, one the club’s founders. Sanchez, who played guitar in the club when she studied at Western, held a five-stringed vihuela. Davis, a violinist and senior at Western, toted the huge, inlaid guitarrón.

Mariachi Bahίa Azul performing at the Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema on July 28, 2018 // Photo by Atticus Everett

They began playing these traditional mariachi instruments just eight months ago, as Reyes prepared to graduate.

“She was always willing to teach,” said Sanchez about Reyes, and Davis agreed.

Salazar, who works at Northwest Indian College, strummed the guitar, and Banel played the trumpet. Sanchez brought the two musicians into the group.

“I found Gaby and Joan at a Metalachi concert,” Sanchez said. “This group plays metal music and mariachi music. I was there with Lucina, the other violinist. We just went to go see the concert and we found Gaby and we told her, ‘We have mariachi music,’ and she was like, ‘oh yeah, we’ll join!’”

Salazar brought more than just her guitar skills to the band. It was a colleague of Salazar’s, activist Maru Mora-Villalpando, who asked Mariachi Bahía Azul to use their voice for social justice. The band made their presence known to detainees being held at the Northwest Detention Center when they joined protesters in Tacoma on Jan. 14. They played through a chain link fence to keep chanting protesters at a distance. The protest was organized by NWDC Resistance to show solidarity with members of the Latino community who were being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Villalpando was the protest organizer. Sweating in their black charro suits, the group played to gray, razor-wired walls amid a chanting crowd.

“It was intense,” Sanchez said. “It was nice seeing a lot of people there for support, but it was weird. The people who came out of the detention center had super nice cars, but there were all these terrible things going on inside.”

Now, weeks after the event in Tacoma, Mariachi Bahίa Azul is playing the same set they played with the protestors before a crowd of playful children and relaxed parents. The Fairhaven audience even joined in when they played their finale, Vicente Fernández’s “El Rey.”

“That’s a crowd pleaser. Just everybody knows that song,” Salazar said.

It was more quick networking by Salazar that got Mariachi Bahίa Azul a chance to play before the open-air movie.

“We kind of jumped in there,” she said. “I just contacted them and said, ‘Hey, we’re a mariachi band!’” The next thing they knew, the group was in front of the crowd. This summer, they have been on the lookout for new chances to connect with a wider audience.

“Usually we practice and perform during the school year, and during the summer we’ll take a break,” Sanchez said. Although they are reduced to just six members whose schedules rarely all align, the group’s membership is higher than usual this summer.

“We started a lot earlier this year because a lot of us are from the community,” Sanchez said. Stronger continuity over the summer has given the group many opportunities to play.

In recent years, their efforts have primarily been toward gaining visibility among the community and other mariachi groups in Washington.

Last April, Juan Galvez, another founding member and Western alumnus, worked with the band’s manager to get in contact with other mariachis.

“They organized a mariachi conference,” Sanchez said. “They had a couple of mariachis from all over Washington come and we just played music basically and we put on a performance at the PAC.”

Mariachi Bahίa Azul members Joan Banel (trumpet), Alondra Sanchez (vihulea), Beatrice Davis (Guitarron), and Gaby Salazar (Guitar). // Photo by Atticus Everett

The event gained traction quickly in its first year. The music department plans to support them for another conference next year, Salazar said.

The 2017 Mariachi Conference was partially inspired by a similar event in Cheney hosted by Eastern Washington University’s Mariachi Las Aguilas. Mariachi Bahίa Azul joined other bands in Cheney for their first collegiate mariachi festival, Davis said.

The band lists Mariachi Las Aguilas as their influences along with Reyes.

“Mariachis from other places all say the same thing, ‘Oh, we didn’t have much support. We kind of started on our own,’” Sanchez said. “And now they’re this big thing and they can play for hours, and we’re like, ‘We have to be like that someday’”

Mariachi Bahίa Azul’s recent participation in the Northwest Detention Center Resistance protest shows they intend to use their voices for more than just entertainment.

“It started off as just trying to learn mariachi,” Sanchez said. “Personally, I would like for it to become some sort of activism thing, at least to show support to other communities.”

Sanchez said the band plans to learn more songs and play longer events, which she hopes will help them develop as a group. They also recognize the need to make their presence known as a club at Western and to keep their membership strong enough to meet and play continuously throughout the year.

“I want this club to survive me and to keep going beyond what I’m able to do,” Davis said.

The band strives toward making Mariachi Bahίa Azul as accessible as possible.

“Anyone can join as long as you’re willing to learn, practice and perform,” Sanchez said.

Mariachi Bahίa Azul will have a booth at the Red Square Info Fair on Sept. 24 and 25, and are open to players of all levels and backgrounds.

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