Heart of mariachi

Guitarrón player brings music of birthplace to second home

Classical piano, jazz, blues and rock. Terence Conrad Diego Smedley-Kohl - Diego to his friends - has played them all, but he's come home to the music of his birthplace.

The son of and actor/arts luminary Ken Smedley, originally from Kamloops, and artist Dorian Kohl, Diego was born just south of Guadalajara in Ajijic (ah-hee-heek), a 500-year-old fishing village on the shore of Lake Chapala.

"They fell in love with the area," Diego said. "My sister and I were both born in Jalisco."

With Guadalajara as its state capital, Jalisco is the centre of the Mexican tequila industry. It's no coincidence for Diego that it is also the home of mariachi music.

As a boy he was steeped in the traditional music of mariachi bands - music often heard in the streets - in seemingly endless variations. He started playing guitar at age six and his mom taught him his first tune, the Mariachi Waltz, ranchera-style.

Mariachi has become synonymous with Mexican music and the country's cultural revolution in general, associated with the "charro suits" musicians wear. It originated in the 19 thcentury with the emergence of Mexican nationalism and remains popular to this day.

When the family returned to Canada, Diego was separated from Latin music, but a return was inevitable. After graduating from high school, he made a beeline back to Mexico, an experience he recalls as a great period in his life. Each morning he'd rise and practice music, teach students in the afternoon and work at restaurants in the evening.

"I just really engulfed myself in the music."

He brought with him his North American musical influences, but people would almost invariably ask him to play mariachi.

"What I found was, I didn't know the popular music as well as a lot of them did, so I started listening hard and learning the tunes, then I teamed up with other players."

He recalled a visit to Cocula.

"It's like a little treasure, a beautiful town. It's the birthplace of mariachi. That basically where it all began in the 1500s. There are 10 or 12 mariachi bands in this one small town. The modern stuff doesn't cut it there."

He returned to B.C. to study classical music intensively. With a new Mexican restaurant opened in Vancouver, he hooked up with a like-minded group of musicians. That was how El Mariachi (Los Dorodos), a Vancouver-based ensemble, came about.

After recently performing at the international Festival of Mariachis in Guadalajara, El Mariachi (Los Dorados) brings An Evening in Ol' Mexico to the Interior with a tour starting Tuesday, March 22 at Sagebrush Theatre. They also play Wednesday, March 23 at Salmon Arm Art Gallery.

Mariachi's distinct folk sound comes from instruments introduced by the Spanish, such as guitars, violins, viheula, a high-pitched, five-stringed guitar, and guitarrón, a large, six-stringed acoustic bass. Diego picked up the guitarrón for a wedding five years ago.

"I really put all my resources into learning this great instrument. Now it's my favourite instrument. It's got such a neat technique - you play everything in octaves. The guitarrón is the heart of the band."

Like Diego, other members of the ensemble have diverse musical backgrounds and music degrees, so they infuse their repertoire with all sorts of influences.

"Our group's very entertaining. If you can't get up a dance, we'll make sure you clap along to a polka and sing a chorus. Audience participation is something, in Canada, we're not quite as accustomed to."

He recalled the Mexican custom of shouting a "greto," enlivening the mariachi experience.

"Every guy down there has to to have his call. It adds a really neat effect. It brings the level of excitement up. They let loose and have a good time."

Get your gretos ready for March 22.

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