The Tucson International Mariachi Conference will celebrate its 31st anniversary this weekend with a three-day conference that spotlights an age-old musical tradition.
The conference, established in 1982, began as a way to teach the culture and tradition of mariachi to the younger generation throughout Tucson, said Alfonso Dancil, the conference's board chairman. While the educational aspect remains the conference's primary focus, outreach to the community has grown considerably.
"The basic concept was to cater to the younger mariachi, to give them something to do after school," Dancil said. "We later realized we needed to expand and reach out to the community and cater to the community as well."
That outreach comes in the form of a number of performances that will follow workshops for students. The conference, at Casino del Sol from April 25 to 27, features workshops on the techniques of mariachi music and folklórico dance. The workshops will culminate each day in performances by students and professionals alike.
The Student Showcase concert on Thursday will give students from elementary schools, middle schools and high schools a chance to use techniques taught in the workshops. Friday's Espactacular concert will feature a number of professional mariachi groups. Dancil said that each conference usually sees about 700 participants from across the U.S. as well as from Mexico and Europe. The conference will conclude Saturday with a mariachi Mass and the Fiesta de Garibaldi by the hotel and casino's swimming pool.
Dancil said that while the Tucson festival certainly isn't the first one to celebrate the mariachi tradition, it's one of the most established and has served as a model for other conferences throughout the world.
"We basically feel that we've started the concept," he said. "We are definitely a true model for the conference structure. We also pride ourselves on the fact that we are strictly mariachi."
Dancil said that other mariachi festivals and conferences have added more music genres.
But even as new music makes its way into everyday culture, students still have a strong desire to keep the mariachi tradition alive, Dancil said. Students have started playing when they were as young as 8, and some local schools have offered mariachi classes for credit.
"For some of these students, the instruments are almost bigger than they are when they start," he said. "We feel it makes good students out of them, that it gives them a reason to stay in school."
Many of the students who have attended workshops over the years have gone on to play in professional groups. And some of the instructors, Dancil added, were students themselves in the conference's early years.
"There's a lot of pride in being able to perform in a group," Dancil said. "This gives them a chance to basically learn another language."
Along with the pride comes a desire to shine at every performance, but the most important aspect of the conference is the learning environment, and what each student takes away from the workshops, Dancil said.
"It provides just a nice family environment," he said. "These students have learned and grown through the community."