Cirilo Marmolejo

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Cirilo Marmolejo went a long way in life, from his roots as an orphan in Mexico in the late 19th century to the leader of the first mariachi band to tour and record in the United States. He was basically…
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Cirilo Marmolejo went a long way in life, from his roots as an orphan in Mexico in the late 19th century to the leader of the first mariachi band to tour and record in the United States. He was basically raised by an older brother who also encouraged him to learn the vihuela, a five-stringed instrument which resembles a small guitar with a round back, usually made of shell. At that time, small musical groups made their living playing and singing anywhere they could, from doorways to the local cantinas. At one fiesta, the young vihuela player made a new friend who proved to be an important collaborator for life, the guitarron player Concho Andrade. Between 1908 and 1912, the two worked together; Andrade taught his friend how to play guitarron, which is basically the entire mariachi rhythm section rolled into one large beast. Sometime after this, Marmolejo formed his first mariachi, but it was actually just a duet with a flute player and was considered a half-baked effort by the public. By 1918, however, the ever-growing mariachi band, now well past two members, was invited by the Governor of Jalisco to Guadalajara, and an invitation to Mexico City followed soon thereafter. The Mariachi Coculense of Marmolejo were now a big deal, performing at fashionable venues such as the Paseo de la Reforma. Still, it was tough trying to survive as a mariachi player, and accounts of Marmolejo during this period describe what a great thing it was for him to get paid 100 pesos by a group of students for playing all night long. But he would go on to greater glories, including a list of mariachi firsts. His group was the first to appear in a sound film (Santa, 1931), the first to make recordings, the first to tour outside of Mexico, and the first to add a trumpet to a mariachi, thus forever changing the instrumental lineup. Like many Mexican musicians, Marmolejo was a member of large, talented family, and several of his siblings worked with him regularly. His son, Jose Santos Marmolejo, has worked with labels such as Arhoolie in compiling releases of his father's historic recordings, including his 1933 Chicago sessions.