October 12, 2007

Mariachi for gringos, mexicanos and everyone else

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Gil Sperry, like many gringos out there, loves mariachi music and the culture surrounding what’s considered Mexico’s top music genre.

In fact, his love for mariachi music was one of the reasons he and his wife decided to move to Baja California.

That love is also one of the reasons he wrote the book “Mariachi for Gringos: Unlocking the Secrets of Mex-ico’s Macho Music.”

“I get goosebumps when I listen to some of the classics in mariachi,” Sperry said.

The book might be the best introduction on mariachi music for gringos and non-gringos alike. It includes a brief history of the genre, interviews with top mariacheros (mariachi musicians), FAQs and Mariachi Protocol section, and even a Mariachi “Pop-Quiz” with some of the most common mistakes gringos make about mariachi music.

But the central part of the book is the Top 50 Mariachi Songs list, compiled and translated by Sperry, and selected by many ethnomusicologist, mariachi experts, mariachi musicians, both in the U.S. and in Mexico.

“This book is forever. It’s a treasure of songs that can be passed from generation to generation,” said Sperry, who’s 68.

The book has become a must-read for gringos who, unable to speak Spanish, weren’t able to get meaning of the songs.

“Many gringos who don’t understand the lyrics come up to me and say, ‘You have solved the problem for us!’” Sperry said.

On Sunday, Oct. 14, you’ll be able to listen live to many of the songs included in the book’s Top 50 Mariachi Songs at the First Annual Mariachi North Park Hispanic Heritage Month, Sunset Ballroom, 2906 University Ave., in North Park.

The festival, which was organized by Sperry and Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge, will include performances by Baja California guitarist Miguel de Hoyos, Ballet Folklorico Sol de México, and Mariachi Real de San Diego.

Sperry will emcee the event as well as sell and sign copies of “Mariachi for Gringos.”

The idea to write the book came to him in 2003, when his son Matthew, 32, was killed when he was struck by a truck while riding his bike to his job in Berkeley. Matthew was an avid mariachi-lover and musician who had just returned from Jalisco where he recorded two cd’s with local mariacheros.

“I promised him I was going to write this book. I really believe that he’s really proud of what I’ve done.”

The book first printing is almost gone, and Sperry is preparing a second printing the following weeks. He’s been promoting the book all over California and Baja California. The response has been great, he said.

Mariachi music is thriving in the U.S. What’s peculiar is that mariachi music is going through a crisis in Mexico.

But in the U.S., thanks to mariachi festivals like the one taking place this Sunday in North Park, mariachi is becoming more and more a household name for many gringos and U.S. Latinos alike.

Although the title of the book, “Mariachi for Gringos,” might offend some White people, the word gringo is not a pejorative term, he said.

“There’s no reason to be offended,” said Sperry, who has a master degree in history from Stanford University.

As a good historian, he said that the word “gringo” originated in the 1700s in Mexico and it comes from the expression “Está en griego,” the equivalent to the English phrase “That’s Greek to me!” It was used to describe a person who spoke English, because many Mexicans couldn’t understand the language.

The subtitle of the book, “Unlocking the Secrets of Mexico’s Macho Music,” refers to the fact that mariachi, through it’s long history, has taken many elements from Mexican machismo: the tequila-drunk man; the guns that get shot to save one’s honor; and the submissive woman who stay home to take care of the children and serve her man.

But it has evolved to one of the major genres of contemporary music, Sperry said.

“In the past, mariachi music was predominately for gentlemen in cantinas. Now it has become so popular that it has ended up as world music,” he said.

“Mariachi for Gringos: Unlocking the Secrets of Mexico’s Macho Music” will surely become a classic among mariachi reference books. Many schools and libraries have added copies to their collections, and many English as a Second Language classes are using the side-by-side translations to teach their students.

“Mariachi music is the bridge between cultures,” Sperry said.

The Mariachi Festival in North Park is $25 per person and will be held on Sunday, Oct. 14, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Sunset Ballroom, 2906 University Ave. More information at (760) 564-3112 or (619) 887-9288.

Gil Sperry will also have a book signing of “Mariachi for Gringos” on Monday, Oct. 15, at Perks Coffee Shop inside the UCSD Bookstore. The event, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., includes a live performance by Ballet Tapatio Folklorico.

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