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Chapter 6: The Cascabel Years(1994-1998)


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The Cascabel Years

The Peak of Mariachi Cascabel
Mariachi Cascabel at its peak in 1997 when its numbers reached 15 persons

I joined Mariachi Cascabel on August 6, 1994. I had been approached by phone about joining the group sometime in May 1994. The call had come while I was on a family trip to Lewisville, Texas. Since this also coincided with my graduation and other senior year highlights, I did not return the phone call right away. It had been Jessie Rios who called me. At that time in my mind he was just a band director that I had met at a contest in Falfurrias, Texas. It seemed that Mr. Cortez and Mr. Soliz had brought up my name in passing conversation and they had "talked me up" pretty good.

I finally returned the call in late-July 1994. The problem existed in that Jessie had just gotten married and was on his honeymoon and I was unable to contact anyone from Cascabel until August. At that, Joe Figarelli called my house on a Thursday and told me if I wanted an audition on the upcoming Saturday. I said yes and asked where I should meet him. He suggested somewhere on the TAMUK campus. I specified between the Jernigan Library and Rhode Hall (the history building).

Friday night my Grandfather Ely came over to visit. We talked about different things, including my audition the next morning. He asked me if I was excited, I told him that I was not. He then told me that I should be very careful when joining a big group. He went on to say that they would probably look down on me since I was from a small town, not to say that Kingsville is a metropolis. For years I wondered why my Grandfather seemed to be against me joining. I finally realized that, by joining Cascabel, I was signing the death certificate of Mariachi Del Rancho. He felt that I would not be able to play with him as much as I had been. The day I realized that I cried; because the day I realized that fact he was already done.

I met Joe Figarelli on a slightly overcast Saturday in August 1994. I had been waiting in my brown 1981 Pontiac Bonneville playing music on my violin. I had no idea what he looked like or what he drove, but when he arrived in his light-blue Mitsubishi Eclipse I knew it had to be him. He instructed me to follow him, so I did. For some reason that will never be known to me, he chose to drive east on Kingsville's Santa Gertrudis Ave. and over the Union Pacific Railroad. He then proceeded south on 6th Street and turned west on Kleberg Ave going over the railroad tracks again. This would have been fine if it hadn't been for the small train that held me there for a few minutes. I could see through the passing tanker cars that he had pulled into some address down the road. That address turned out to be Kingsville's First Presbyterian Church. I got down and entered the building; no one had arrived yet. Joe came out of two double-doors and asked me what took so long. I let him know about the train, he laughed a little.

The first thing he asked me was about what songs I knew. I gave him an oral list of some thirty songs that I had played and a short history of my musical past. At that time the door opened and a light-skinned baseball cap clad person come into the church. I could tell by his case that he was a trumpet player. Joe introduced me to Armando Botello and explained that he was the group's "other leader." The two then went off together to discuss matter of the group leaving me alone to welcome the rest of the group.

Little by little, one by one, I met the people that I could come to know. I met them all that day with the exception of Maria Figarelli, who had went to Venezuela to visit her family and homeland. I meet, for the first time, Pedro "Pete" Suarez and Enrique "Kike" Ortega. Pete was the guitarron player that I would later count as one of my best friends and advisors, Kike was a vocalist/guitar player that was coming into the Kingsville Mariachi scene. They were a set. Later I learned that Pete had taken it into his power to see that Kike developed properly as a musician should. I also met Armando Robledo, who played the vihuela, Joey Handy, who was a Vocalist/Trumpet player and Tony Moreno, the guitar player. The last person I met that day was Marivel Vela, a flute player.

I greeted each of these people and began to answer their questions. Who was I? Where was I from? What could I play? All this was cut short, however, shortly after Ernie Gutierrez arrived. As soon as he got there he too was taken into what I later discovered to be the piano room. They talked with him for about three minutes, then they retreated to another part of the church. While that was going on, Marivel and Lisa were telling me that being in the group was like. They told me of how they played gigs all over South Texas and how they had once visited the Astrodome for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Christine, who had gravitated to that room across the courtyard where Joe, Mando and Ernie; walked back and told me they were ready for me.

When I got to the room, I slowly opened the door. They sat in three chairs, Ernie to my left, Joe Figarelli in front of me and Mando Botello to my right wearing a long mustard colored choir robe. This produced a smile from me, but looks of distaste from Joe who wanted a professional aura.

Joe explained what he expected from his violin players and asked what selection I knew. I listed about 20 songs. They then asked me if I owned my own instrument and had my own car. I said that the instrument was mine, but I could only get to Kingsville. My 1981 Bonneville was too old to make distant trips. They then asked me to play them a sample of several selections. I began with a slow bolero called Julia, that my Grandfather has shown me from one of his many songbooks. I played it slow, made sure to make the proper tones and played with plenty of vibrato. When I finished, they asked for another selection. I felt I should play something that was standard, I played El Rey. When I was done, they asked me if I knew anything faster that had more technique. I thought for a few seconds and selected Jesucita en Chihuahua. I played it as best as I could, all sections including the section that was the most difficult for me at the time. Needless to say, they were sold. In fact, they wanted to know if I could start that night. I said sure, why not?

We then practiced as a group, the "play-by-ear" style that my Grandfather had taught me more that paid off. They then recorded me a tape of their arrangements to practice at home. Joe then sent me with Kike Ortega and Christine Perez to try to find me a uniform. I remember the two were fighting every moment I was with them. In fact, the only thing that escaped argument was the decision to eat at McDonald's. Kike was able to get me a uniform made up of several uniforms he had come to posses over the years. All that was missing was the belt and the galas", or botonaduras, that go on the pant legs of Mariachi uniforms and the then trademark personalized Cascabel belts.

I'll take a few lines to explain the importance of the Mariachi Cascabel uniform. In many ways one can trace the history of Cascabel in the various uniforms that were worn at various times (White Jacket on Black Shirt/Maroon with sash pre-1993, Blue/Cream "two tone" 1993-1995, Olive Drab/Brown 1995-1996, Kaki 1997-1998, and Basic Black/various ties 1998-2000). The uniform that was assembled by Kike was the Blue/Cream "two tone." That uniform would be the longest uniform that Mariachi Cascabel would place in service. It also marks what I like to call the "golden age" of Cascabel. This uniform was your basic "two-tone" type. It consisted of a Blue jacket with white "fringes" outlining the lapels and white "highlights" on the pockets. The jackets were worn over a cream colored shirt, sometimes white shirts were used when cream shirts were not to be found. The pants were "two tone," cream on the inner leg and blue on the outer area where galas were to be placed. Another set of pants exists which are inversely colored with blue on the inside and cream on the outside.

Uniform 1993-1994
The Blue/Cream "two tone" (1993-1995) was worn in Cascabel's Golden Age

The group I joined in that year would not be the group I would later leave in 1998. The early group was full of promise and chances to make it big. The music was, too many, awesome. The group often met at Joe Figarelliís home, which at the time was a trailer on Kingsvilleís John Lee street. The group sported flute players. The most difficult song that was played was La Madrugada. The group was very young; most people being in their twenties. Pete Suarez was the group's patriarch, offering the advice of many years in the business to all that would listen. Unfortunately, even in these early days, gossip and backstabbing were threatening to tear the group apart. This would be a major factor in the development of the group for the next four years.

The groupís leader was Joe Figarelli. Second in command was Armando Botello.

Although the violin section always had the first and second parts, the sound we truly desired could not be achieved. I tried to explain this point many times, but since I was an outsider, it fell on deaf ears.

You see, in Brass wind instrumentation sound is amplified by adding musicians. If a marching band does not have a powerful trumpet or trombone sound, the addition of one to two more trumpet players can compensate. In string theory, larger sounds can be obtained harmonically. Instead of adding more violinists, a strong sound can be reached by division of parts. Three and four part harmony is the key. A group with seven violins can be beaten by a group with four violins playing four parts.

There were some notable exceptions, such as an arrangement of Gema arranged by John Vela and a version of Cien Anos also arranged by John Vela.

The theory that Figarelli-Botello implemented did, however, give me the opportunity to meet some of South Texasí best and finest violin players. In the early days I was with the group, the violin section was made up of Ernie Gutierrez, Christine Perez, Lisa Soliz and Jesse Rios. Ernie was a great influence on my playing and I am confident to say that it was playing and watching him for so many years that helped to improve my own sound. Christine and I never saw eye-to-eye on every point, but she showed me that in mariachi, as in life, there are people that will never accept you or your ideas. Lisa showed me that what Christine showed me was not true in all cases. Lisa Soliz and Jesse Rios were the only ones that really accepted me from the first day I was in the group. It is Jesse that I keep a special place in my heart. Jesse Rios is the finest person I ever met in my Mariachi, and later educational, career. He was the voice of reason and friendship when the rest of the group tried to tear its self-apart.

The first gigs I would ever play with Mariachi Cascabel were literally all "over the place." As with my first gigs with other groups, my very first gig with Cascabel was at the Catholic Church in Hebbronville for a wedding. We then sped to Kingsville and played a gig at the Knight's of Columbus Hall. The night finished in a hotel on Corn Products Road in Corpus Christi, Texas. At the end of the evening, I was approached by the groupís leaders, paid and given a few words on how things worked. Every 1st of the month a gig was taken out to cover expenses of the group; telephone, business cards etc. This fact, seeming necessary, would be a point of contention for years to come. Joe and Mando never once told me I was hired, I just showed up and played. I would do that for four years.

The Tales of the Wild Horse Desert was preformed the 18th, 19th and 20th of November 1994

In October and November 1994 Mariachi Cascabel practiced for its first great project of the mid-1990's era, a play about the founding of Kingsville called, Tales of the Wild Horse Desert , by Janell Kleberg and David Deacon. This play had to have been the biggest thing the people of Kingsville had done together in a long time. With as cast and production crew of 125 people, almost everyone of importance in Kingsville in the 1990ís had something to do with the production of that November 1994 production. It was a humongous project. There were schedules to consolidate musical selections to practice and actors to rehearse. Each cast member was given a special rehearsal packet with October and November colanders. Each day was rehearsal for someone.

I played the role of Chista, the camp cook. The play dealt with the life of Capt. Richard King and how he, and his family, built a cattle empire in South Texas. It was seen through the eyes of an old vaquero, cowboy, who told his story of a great trail ride to Abilene, Kansas to his young grandson. It went back well before the Civil War and climaxed in 1904 with the founding of Kingsville.

Mariachi Cascabel-Hacienda Records
Mariachi Cascabel became a group of Recording Artists in 1995 with the release of El Gusto Del Cascabel

Mariachi Cascabel-1997
Mariachi Cascabel remained strong in 1997

Mariachi Cascabel split-up in September 1998. I use the term "split-up," rather than "broke-up," because it was a split. Mariachi Cascabel would go on in just a different form. To use the term, "broke-up" is to say that Mariachi Cascabel dissolved. That was not the case.

Many of the people in the group back in 1998 will tell you of the attitude that the group had. Many people were tired. If you look at the final poster that Hacienda made for Mariachi Cascabel in 1998, you will notice the tired expressions on most of the people.

Mariachi Cascabel-1997
Mariachi Cascabel before the 1998 fall from Grace

The looks on the faces of Joe Figarelli, Tony Moreno and myself say it all. They were tense times. Years of pent-up frustrations and meetings, authorized and unauthorized, were finally showing in the attitude of the group. In some ways, it was the best of times. The group was giging, people loved it and Mariachi Cascabel was popular.

No one can say when the cracks began to form in the group, but what can be said is how the cracks spread. For years, Joe and Mando had been best friends.

Mariachi Cascabel-1996
Mando Botello and Joe Figarelli in Flour Bluff in 1996

It seemed almost impossible to even imagine Mando Botello and Joe Figarelli going in different directions. They often talked about how it hurt them to part down diffrent road when finishing the gigs. Joe would turn left for Kingsville and Mando would turn right for Corpus Christi. They had been through so much together, maybe too much time wears away any friendship.

As early as July 1998, I began to notice a change in the group. Joe Figarelli always liked for the group to eat as a group. People began to resist this, breaking off into little factions. There was too much intra-group politics. Joe had begun to get strict as the group prepared for an upcoming ballet foklorico show that Cascabel had been doing with Esmi Magee's Ballet Foklorico Ortiz for years. More and more people began to show resistance to doing this show again.

The internal politics of certain Mariachi groups can be more complex and dangerous than any in any soap opera. The 1998 Schism is a direct result of a failure of communications, ambitious motives and the need to change things that are already working. I chose to leave Mariachi Cascabel at that time. I explained to Joe Figarelli that I was becoming tired of the "mariachi life" and that I wanted to go out and look for a nice girl. We had played so many weekends in so many years. I needed more, I couldn't be single forever. I will never know if Joe fully understood my intentions. I wasn't leaving his group, I was trying to have what all the other guys had been allowed to have since I had got there. I was going to get a life, a girl and, just maybe, some respect. I was tired of being the "I told you so!" I'm sure that if Joe had listened to my advice, this whole chapter of my life would have ended differently. Since then, more people have listened to me; others have not. I guess being a historian always means saying; "I told you so!"

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