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Pint-sized mariachis learn music of Mexico in New York

He has barely begun learning guitar, but already six-year-old Xcaret Gonzalez is dreaming big.

He aspires to play well enough some day to form his own band — one playing the mariachi music that is an important part of his Mexican background, and which has been declared part of world cultural heritage.

“This is my first year,” the young boy from the Bronx said during a break in his lessons at the Mariachi Academy of New York.

“I like to both sing and to play the guitar,” Xcaret said at the music school which holds kids’ classes three times a week in the uniquely Mexican musical artform.

All told, there are some 120 children, most between the ages of seven and 17, enrolled at the decade-old music school in the Harlem neighborhood of northern Manhattan.

A brassy, driving form of music, mariachi began as ranch music during colonial times, with some experts putting its origins as early as 1850.

One of the most identifiable styles of Latin American music exported around the world, up-tempo mariachi typically features several musicians, playing violins, guitars and trumpets.

Ramon Ponce, the director of the school who also teaches guitar there, said he has a mission to spread the joy of mariachi in his adopted homeland.

“We wanted to bring the music of Mexico to the community here in New York,” he said, adding that he had decided to open the school after receiving accolades for his own touring mariachi troupe.

“We’ve been playing for 20 years and every time we performed, children came up to us and asked us about the music,” Ponce said.

He said that his school teaches mariachi music for various instruments, adding harp last year, as well as musical theory.

Born in the center-west state of Jalisco, mariachi has spread over the generations, and now is heard across Mexico and around the world in bars, restaurants, even at weddings and bar mitzvahs — anywhere a celebration is going on

So beloved is this unique style of music that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last year designated mariachi music as part of world cultural heritage.

In its application for the UNESCO designation, Mexico said the singular musical style, although emblematic of many of the country’s culture, is at risk of being drowned out by pop music and less folkloric musical styles.

UNESCO said in a statement last year that putting mariachi on the list of protected cultural art forms would increase awareness — both within and outside of Mexico — of the cherished musical form.

“Learning by ear is the main means of transmission of traditional mariachi, and the skill is usually passed down from fathers to sons and through performance at festive, religious and civil events,” it said.

The UN group also noted that mariachi had “crossed borders and become a symbol of Mexico.”

The Paris-based UNESCO said that “immigrants, descendants of Mexicans living abroad, as well as Latin Americans, have made the modern mariachi a symbol of community identity, because it is a bond linking them to their roots,” and called it part of Mexico’s “cultural patrimony.”

That heritage is kept alive in schools dotted across Mexico and increasingly institutes that are run overseas, like the one in Harlem, where 50 students are divided into three separate classrooms, during simultaneous lessons of guitar, violin and voice.

“They’re a little out of tune because their strings are new and a bit hard to press down,” Ponce told AFP as his dozen guitar students struggled somewhat to master the chords.

During their lesson, the children repeated the names of the musical notes written on a small chalkboard, and the corresponding chord progressions on their instruments.

One seven-year-old child, Luz Lopez, said she loved the sound of mariachi guitar, but especially enjoyed knowing that she was learning music that is “part of Mexico.”

“I like to hear the music, to play the instruments. Usually I dance,” the child confided to AFP.

Likewise, one mother, Marta Herrera, 34, said she was gratified to know that she was passing on her love of her native music and culture to her young daughter.

“It’s keeping the tradition going,” Herrera said.

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