Musical Director of Mariachi Vargas
José Martínez was born on June 27, 1941, in Tecalitlán, Jalisco, Mexico and began expressing himself musically as a child. "I started singing on the buses in Guadalajara when I was 10 years old," he says, adding that it was common to see youngsters singing and playing music in public.
When he was 12 years old, Martínez joined his first mariachi band as a violin player and at the age of 13, young "Pepe" played with his father, Blas Martínez Barajas, in an official Mexican military band for three years. "My father played the harp and helped me just a little. He wanted me to learn the guitar but I liked the violin, so I left for school to study the violin," recalls Martínez. Martínez engulfed himself in music and began experimenting with writing music when he was 19 years old.
Martínez formed his own mariachi ensemble in 1966, and called it Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán. He went on a musical tangent, rearranging exerts from operas, arias and movie themes. His writing style was also influenced by music written by composers and arrangers of the prestigious Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. "All mariachis, when they are 10 or 15 years old, dream about being in Mariachi Vargas. Me too," says Martínez.
His arrangements were full of trumpet fanfares, violin counter melodies, and original introductions and transitions between phrases and songs. Nuevo Tecalitlán became one of the most dynamic sounding mariachi bands in Mexico throughout the mid-1960s and early 1970s and Martínez's arrangements became his band's signature. The group's claim to fame in this era was having a director who was born in Tecalitlán, the same town as Silvestre Vargas was born in, as well as recording 80 albums with Martínez. The group's albums were dedicated to pioneering a different, full sound for mariachi bands and included popular instrumentals and classical exerts like Beethoven's 9th symphony "Himno a la Alegría" ("Ode to Joy").
But it was his popurrís (medleys) that caught the attention of his colleagues and peers in other mariachi ensembles. "Popurri A Los Gallos," "Popurri Mi Tierra," and his "Popurri de José Alfredo Jiménez" are just three pieces of work that laid the foundation for the sound that he would one day be asked to recreate for another mariachi band.
In 1971, Martínez and his wife, Angelina Perez de Martínez, welcomed their newborn son, Jose "Pepe" Martínez Jr., to their family; and in 1975, Jesus Rodríguez de Hijar, the sitting music director of Mariachi Vargas, retired and the group's coordinator, Rubén Fuentes, invited Martínez for an audition. Martínez was selected and joined Mariachi Vargas that same year. The group was very busy and there was no time for "breaking in" Martínez or other formalities. By the late 1970s, Mariachi Vargas was in high demand and José Martínez had written his first arrangements for a solo artist, a female rising star named Rocio Durcal.
Many mariachi music aficionados considered the genres' "glory years" to be over by this time. But Martínez was soon able make audiences happy with his interpretation of the Mexican spirit and take advantage of having the finest mariachi musicians interpret his work. The marriage between Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and Jose Martínez cemented Martínez's writing style with what had become the most popular mariachi band in the world. "Somos Novios" and "El Cascabel" are two of the first songs Martínez rearranged for his new group.
Mariachi Vargas once again rose the bar in mariachi music in 1986 with the release of the album Mexicanísimo. Mexicanísimo was released to coincide with the welcoming of nations to Mexico as Mexico played host to the world during the World Cup soccer tournament in 1986 and contained three original songs written by a musically mature José Martínez and left hundreds of young, American, impressionable mariachi students in awe. Martínez presented to the mariachi world a sound that took more than a decade for other professional mariachi ensembles to duplicate. "Violín Huapango," "Lluvia De Cuerdas" and "Mexicanísimo" became some of the most popular and most requested songs within the circuit of mariachi musicians throughout the world at the time.
It seemed that Martínez was just getting started shaping a new mariachi repertoire and the next year Mariachi Vargas released the album El Mariachi and introduced Martínez's salute to Vera Cruz in a popurri called "Viva Vera Cruz." The violin ricochets featured in this song became Martínez's trademark on stage. Martínez returned to the classics in 1989 by arranging an entire album of classical pieces from both Latin America and Europe.
In the early 1990s, Mariachi Vargas underwent serious personnel changes and saw the retirement of career harpist Arturo Mendoza and the death of guitarrón master, Natividad Santiago. The release of the heavily anticipated album La Fiesta Del Mariachi featured two more Martínez original songs, "El Viajero" and "Fiesta Del Mariachi" and a sequel to Martínez's tribute to Vera Cruz, "Viva Vera Cruz II." The album was a favorite among mariachi musicians and fans everywhere.
The 1990s saw more of Mariachi Vargas' oldest members retire but that didn't seem to phase Martínez. Two more albums, Viva El Mariachi and Al Son Que Nos Toquen, had yet two more original Martínez songs under the same names.
Martínez has just finished, along side composer Ruben Fuentes, completing Mariachi Vargas' newest album Sinfónico. Under the supervision of Maestro Fuentes, this album was recorded with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Querétaro.
Several great arrangers and composers have written for Mariachi Vargas throughout its history, and each brought with him his own personal influence. Although Martínez has his share songs now accepted as "standards", his numbers have yet to match those of other musicians who have written for Mariachi Vargas throughout the decades.
"Rubén Fuentes wrote the book on mariachi music; Pepe came in and added a couple of pages," says founder of the San Jose State University Mariachi Workshop, Jonathon Clark. "He had to go through this long circuitous process to be in the group that bares the name of his hometown," he says, acknowledging the irony that José Martínez is from Tecalitlán, the birth place of Mariachi Vargas.
What is next for José Martínez? No one knows. Martínez is still writing, learning, and performing and continues to earn his place in the hearts of mariachi music fans. He is currently tutoring his 30 year-old son José "Pepe" Martínez Jr., in music composition. In 1993, "Pepe Jr." joined Mariachi Vargas as a violin player and once again the Martínez family plays together as father and son.