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Mariachi band back at University High


Waco Tribune (09/29/2005)
By Dan Genz

Mariachi musicians don't sing with their hands in their pockets, teacher Archie Hatten IV told the 15 members of University High School's new mariachi band.

"When you get to the singing part, that's where you've got to star," Hatten ordered, "Seventy-five percent of your performance is what they see, 25 percent is what they hear."

Hatten, 24, knows that well. He played the trumpet as a University High student in the late 1990s, when the school's flourishing mariachi ensemble thrilled groups across Waco and even won an international competition in Arizona, before falling apart soon after his class graduated in 1999.

Six years later, Hatten and his pupils are trying to bring the beloved songs back to campus with flair.

Principal Nolan Correa even created a new class period after the final bell just for mariachi music.

"What I really like is it's not just a club. It's much more formal and it's something we can keep in place," said Troy Tinney, fine arts director for Waco Independent School District.

The district is developing a curriculum for the new class and trying to give it a strong academic footing on campus the previous group lacked, Tinney said.

In 1997, an elementary school music teacher, Jose Nino started a popular after-school band at University High called Mariachi Cultural. The group played weddings, birthday parties and up to three gigs a day on weekends. With Hispanic, black, white and Asian members, the band drew raves for its diversity and spirited style. Then it imploded in 1999, shortly after Nino was charged with cocaine possession.

"That was such an experimental group, it just blew up so fast, maybe too fast. It was something new and everybody loved it," Hatten reminisced in an interview after class recently.

The school board debated bringing back mariachi last winter, about the same time Hatten returned to town to teach music, eventually landing a Waco ISD position as band director at G.L. Wiley Middle School.

Hatten, who graduated from Texas State University in December, recalls everyone asking him, "You're going to start it back up, aren't you?"

Hatten said he is beginning slow, with the group's first performance scheduled Oct. 27 before the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. However, excitement is already building, based in part on what Hatten calls "the ghost of the old group."

But the new group has a few obstacles to overcome. They have no uniforms and must raise money. A few guitars are still on the way, expected to arrive today. Many students aren't fluent in Spanish and are tentative with the lyrics.

Some performers came from the school's marching band and orchestra with little singing experience and a quarter of the band are novices with their instruments.

The snags showed last week during a rehearsal of the song, "La Negra."Afterward, Hatten demanded more passion the next time.

"I'm embarrassed. Nobody sang with heart, spirit or soul. I want this to be beautiful. It was mud on the bottom of my shoe," Hatten said.

Later, with Hatten and a student strumming the mariachi melody on a small guitar and the five trumpet players blowing at full power, the group showed signs of promise.

Fan Brandi Ballard has been noticing the group's potential for weeks.

"They started real good from the third or fourth practice," said Ballard, 17, a senior in the marching band who watches her younger brother Myron play in the band each day. "They should be getting (gigs) real soon."

Mariachi music is tough on the trumpets, said Myron, 16, the student leader of the band, because trumpets have to overpower the string instruments, establishing "a strong sound" that tires his cheeks.

But Myron is exhilarated from the opportunity that wasn't available for years.

"We get to play some fun things and they say we're going to do some performances soon," Myron said.

Waco ISD school board member Larry Perez pushed hard for the group to start this year and applauded its early progress.

"I can't wait til they just get it all together and start playing for the community," said Perez.

School board members, in approving $10,000 for the program last spring, wanted the band to have a strong educational component, with mandatory attendance and grades.

Senior Darlene Ramos, 17, a guitar player waiting for her instrument, said she's already learning something.

"I learn more (Spanish) here than I do in Spanish class," she said.