Strength in the Spectacular: The Mariachi Ghost flourishes in the undefinable and the unexpected

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The Mariachi Ghost (Photo: Jay Poturica)

By Jillian Groening

It’s tough being a music industry misfit. While most other bands fit neatly into pre-existing scenes, ready for radio play and eager fans, or create work which can be imagined through an erratic list of comparisons, Winnipeg’s The Mariachi Ghost is a little more nebulous. Heck, the band can’t even fit in your average family-size mini-van.

Blending traditional Mexican rhythms with soaring guitar riffs, the eight-piece modern mariachi band has created its own niche market and it couldn’t be more advantageous.

After playing a well-received open mic night at The Lo Pub in 2009, lead vocalist and guitarist Jorge Requena — along with jarana player and pal Gabriel Fields — began to recruit open-minded musicians obsessed with Mexican stylings and The Mariachi Ghost was formed.

“It was a Winnipeg accident,” Requena explains regarding the group’s beginnings. Asked to play a gig at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival promptly following the open mic success, Requena’s vision for the mariachi band got theatrical. “I wanted to really make it a show so I invited as many people as I could orchestrate properly, which was eight, and it hasn’t changed since.”

Rounding out the group is lead guitarist Rafael Reyes, drummer and vocalist Ian Mikita, bassist and vocalist Adam Kroeker, Tim Friesen on keys, trumpet, vocals and quijada, and Bruce Berven on percussion, vocals and guitarra vozarrona. Donning sinister sugar skull makeup and intricate, old-style mariachi suits, the group is a vision on stage. Add contemporary dancer Alexandra Garrido and the experience is unforgettable.

“There is something about a really large group playing and harmonizing on stage that makes me vibrate in a special way,” Requena says. “I think having a lot of people doing their best for a common cause is a beautiful thing to see and that’s partly what’s kept us together. The reaction from that first gig was just so great.”

While creating a striking stage presence, the makeup, costumes and overall ethos of the group was taken from a prose-based graphic novel Requena was working on at the time. Inspired by tales his grandfather and mother would tell him back home in Mexico City, Requena found that adding a physical, kinetic element to the performance aided in storytelling.

“We often sing in Spanish so we needed another way to communicate to the audience,” Requena states. “The movement makes the music so much stronger. People are able to relate not only to the music and how it feels but also to the dance and how it feels.”

Trained in both Mexican traditional dance as well as contemporary dance, Garrido was able to combine improvisation and physical theatre skills along with the percussive foot stomps on the tarima to create a character that embodies everything in the story of the mariachi ghost. Similar to how the band’s music is a melding of cultures, the entire performance creates a symbiotic artistic relationship.

The Mariachi Ghosts’ unique and intelligent stage presence gained the group hype, popularity and a strong, supportive fan base. From sold-out gigs at the Times Changed High & Lonesome Club to the exclusive opportunity to perform on the Winnipeg Art Gallery rooftop for Nuit Blanche to an annual spot at Jazz Fest’s Latin Night lineup at The Cube, The Mariachi Ghost was embracing its strange bird status whole-heartedly.

“I get goosebumps from being on stage combined with the lightheadedness of screaming and the fact that you’re allowed to scream your thoughts and that people are joyous about them,” Requena says. “That your artistic vision is being respected by other humans is a really big win.”

In November 2013, the modern mariachis released their self-titled debut. Recorded at Private Ear Recording in the Exchange District, the album was engineered by Craig Boychuk (KEN mode, Greg MacPherson) and produced by Benoit Morier (Chic Gamine). Having decided to record live and overdub accordingly, the album was able to capture the essence of the group’s electric live perrformance.

“It was also necessary to have Alex moving through the space as we recorded,” Requena explains concerning the bustling recording studio energy. “Although you might not be able to hear it, we needed to have that element included. She’s part of our glue.”

The album, which contains a distinct mix of full metal instrumentation, four-part harmonies. and Cuban and Afro-Mexican rhythms, gained radio play across Canada, the Netherlands, France, Australia, and Mexico as well as picking up the World Recording of the Year honour at the 2014 Western Canadian Music Awards.

Following the success of its recording debut, The Mariachi Ghost is getting ready for its biggest summer yet. With the honour of kicking off Main Stage performances at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Thursday, June 9 to playing at the PanAM & Parapan Am Games in Toronto, not to mention planning two more concept albums and a highly anticipated music video directed by Guy Maddin, The Mariachi Ghost is proof that different is best.

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After years of navigating the music industry through the power of delegation and eight pairs of hands, The Mariachi Ghost is beginning to embrace business support. By attending one-on-one career consultations with Manitoba Music staff to workshops and January Music Meeting sessions, the rockin’ mariachi’s have been able to apply their independent knowledge of the industry to new-found information to form an unstoppable musical force.

“Because we are different, it’s hard to find anyone who wants to be our champion,” Requena says. “We had to find people who were okay with a complicated act, people that we could talk to who would help us move forward.”

Applying negotiation skills acquired at the January Music Meeting, The Mariachi Ghost was able to plan a hectic year filled with performance obligations at twelve different festivals. 

“What we learned at the meeting helped us plan our year with a very intelligent strategy,” Requena states. “We’re able to play all of the festivals we would like without breaking the bank or borrowing money. I think that’s a victory for any band.”

The bands new networking skills enabled them to crystallize relationships with BreakOut West, Paquin Entertainment Group, and The Agency Group. With a lot of Latin American artists on their roster already, The Agency Group will aid The Mariachi Ghost with expanding their audience through performances at both Latin American and European festivals.

“It’s very helpful to have people who are professionals explaining what your options are,” Requana explains. “It’s great to be able to channel the success that we’ve already had, as minor as it may be, into something that will bring us wider success.”

With The Mariachi Ghosts’ first year utilizing music industry-savvy skills packed with 12 different festivals, the concepts and creation of two separate albums, a music video by one of Canada’s most prolific film directors, and the most travel that the band has ever seen, one can only imagine what the prog-rockers will accomplish in year two.

“This summer was the first time we were able to have a choice and we even had to turn down some opportunities,” Requena admits. “We’re always just trying to make our supporters proud and wanting to show everyone new things. We want to always try to deliver a really great show.”

After stumbling into the industry more or less by accident, the group of mariachi’s only problem now is world domination.

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