Get to know the true mariachi

Escape the resort when Mariachi Los Dorados returns to the Okanagan for its annual spring tour March 10 to 14.

Armstrong and Mexico-raised musician Diego Kohl brings his guitarrón to perform with Vancouver’s Mariachi Los Dorados as part of its March tour through the Okanagan.

Armstrong and Mexico-raised musician Diego Kohl brings his guitarrón to perform with Vancouver’s Mariachi Los Dorados as part of its March tour through the Okanagan.

To many Canadians who travel south through two borders to escape winter, the men in those large hats, playing horns and stringed instruments and singing “ay, ay, ay ay” are just as popular as those lime margaritas and tamales.

But there’s more than the northern stereotype of the traditional mariachi band, which has a rich and colourful history in Mexico.

That’s where Vancouver-based group Mariachi Los Dorados come in. About to return to the Okanagan with their annual spring tour, the 12-member group not only plays the music of the mariachi, but also shares the stories and history of this Mexican mainstay.

“We have members from Mexico, Canada and China,” said Los Dorados member Diego Kohl, who was born in Mexico and raised in Armstrong. “We like to say we’re truly Mexican and proudly Canadian.”

What started as the first recorded mariachi band with Mariachi Vargas De Tecalitlán, a Mexican folk ensemble created in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas, has evolved into mariachi from around the world who perform the traditional music on violin, trumpet, guitarrón, guitar, and vihuela (a five-string guitar-like instrument).

“There’s something very mystical about the mariachi,” said Kohl, who plays the guitarrón (the large six-string acoustic bass).

“It’s a great mixture of culture, history, romance and elegance. That’s what we bring to the table.”

The history can really be seen in the outfits the mariachi wear.

“The traditional mariachi outfit had more of an indigenous look with a small hat and white cotton shirts,” said Kohl. “When the French emperor (Maximilian) arrived in Mexico, he liked the music but he didn’t like the outfit of the mariachi. He had French designers redesign the outfits and took the idea from the charros (horsemen) and the suits that the big ranch owners wore and fashioned them after their outfits.”

Since then, the mariachi are recognized by their moño (bowtie), sombrero (wide-rimmed hat) and silver and gold latches or buttons.

“When they were first seen, it was thought as very impressive with the more formal and elegant look,” said Kohl.

Founded and led by singer/guitarist Alex Alegria, Mariachi Los Dorados not only wears those sharp-looking suits (they just had new ones tailored), but have some new music to share with audiences.

The band has been working on its latest album, following its last two, which Kohl says is a mix of original and traditional songs in several different styles.

The band also just celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

“We got together and had tacos,” laughed Kohl, adding the celebrations will continue with the successful Mariachi Festival Canada in Vancouver, celebrating its sixth year in May, which Los Dorados hosts.

“We are bringing four groups from the U.S. and Mexico to play with us,” said Kohl. “We’re enjoying getting out with other mariachi groups, playing and bonding, and we’re getting tighter as a group. What’s successful with all of us is that we love entertaining.

That strong history and musical tradition will be part of Los Dorados’ tour through the Okanagan.

“We love to interact with audiences and also ask audiences what they like to hear. It’s very much that way in Mexico, trying to please an audience with skill and showmanship.”

Produced by Armstrong’s Ken Smedley, Mariachi Los Dorados performs in the Okanagan on the following dates:

– March 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Minstrel Café in Kelowna. Call the Minstrel for dinner and show at 250-764-2301.

– March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Okanagan College Vernon campus theatre. Tickets are The BookNook in Vernon at 250-558-0668.

– March 12 at Lorenzo’s Café in Ashton Creek. Phone 250-838-6700 for reservations.

– March 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Zion United Church Hall, Armstrong. Tickets at Chocoliro. Phone 250-546-2886.

– March 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Centre Stage Theatre in Summerland, Tickets at Martins Flowers in Summerland (250-494-5432) and The Dragon’s Den in Penticton (250-492-3011).