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The City Journals

Mariachi musicians and folk dancers put on family-friendly show

Oct 14, 2019 03:51PM ● By Alison Brimley

Ballet las Americas performs at the Viridian Event Center, accompanied by Mariachi de mi Tierra. (Photo by Derek Brimley)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

When tourists think of visiting Utah, they probably think of ski slopes and red rock canyons. Jeff Whiteley wants them to think of the state’s abundant musical talent. He wants Utahns to think of themselves that way, too.

Whiteley is the founder and manager of Excellence in the Community concert series, which puts on live music performances at venues such as the Gallivan Center and Peery’s Egyptian Theater. A few years ago, the Viridian Events Center approached Whiteley, and it now hosts concerts every second Saturday of the month. 

Last month’s performance at the Viridian, which took place Sept. 14, featured the band Mariachi de mi Tierra alongside folk dance company Ballet las Americas. The event brought audience members of all ages and cultural backgrounds, and it packed the house.

It’s all part of Whiteley’s vision to highlight the often unseen and undervalued musical talent in Utah. According to Whiteley, Utah is among the top-ranked states in the nation on metrics such as piano ownership, and the Wasatch Front is among the highest in dance class participation. All of this translates into a passion and a talent for music that he thinks isn’t being fully recognized. 

The musical talent in Utah is often relegated to the background, Whiteley said, performing in such venues as weddings and restaurants. Excellence in the Community seeks to put these musicians on center stage. And in order to make that as accessible as possible to audiences—especially families without large entertainment budgets—admission is always free. 

But Excellence Concerts didn’t just shine a spotlight on Mariachi de mi Tierra and Ballet Las Americas. It also played a role in bringing the two together. Until performing with Mariachi de mi Tierra, Ballet las Americas typically performed with recorded music. But because Excellence is a showcase for live music, recorded music wouldn’t cut it. Understandably, dancers don’t typically love performing with live music, Whiteley says. It’s more expensive and more difficult to rehearse. But the partnership has definitely paid off. Audiences, it seems, would agree. 

Ballet las Americas has been performing since 1979, but its collaboration with Excellence Concerts started about three years ago. Artistic director Irma Hofer has loved performing with them. And on days when her group isn’t performing, she attends other concerts in the series. Speaking of other Excellence in the Community performers, Hofer says, “We have become a family.” 

Family is a big part of the vision of Excellence Concerts and especially a part of this concert, which had a fun, informal vibe. Much of the audience was made up of children. The band took requests and encouraged dancing and singing along.

For those who didn’t know the words, perhaps because they lack cultural ties to the music, the band offered something they’d recognize, too. They performed modern hits like the 2017 hit “Despacito,” plus the Four Seasons’ classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” They also took time after their first number to acquaint the uninitiated with the basics of mariachi music. Each instrument introduced itself with a brief solo so that listeners got a feel for the individual components that create mariachi’s signature sounds. 

So, while the performers met the highest standards of professionalism and talent, the atmosphere and the ticket price made the whole event feel lively and low-pressure. For parents who want to introduce their children to live performance but don’t want to worry about keeping them perfectly silent or about wasting the price of an admission ticket, this was the ideal venue. 

Unity across cultures is also at the forefront of these performers’ minds. 

“The more that we know each other, the more comfortable we can become and the more united we can become,” Hofer said. She hopes her performances can convey to the community “that we’re more alike than we are different.”