Texas high school students embrace the heart and soul of the mariachi
While walking to class one evening, Ezekiel “Zeke” Robert Castro, a lecturer in the Butler School of Music, did a second-take when he saw a poster for the UT Longhorn High School Band Camp. In that moment, he envisioned high school students dressed in their finest silver-studded uniforms — trajes — performing mariachi music at the Bates Concert Hall.
When he took his idea to the director of the Butler School of Music, he found that he wasn’t the only one who wanted to bring this vision to life.
“When I told him that I wanted to start a Longhorn Mariachi Camp in addition to the traditional UT Longhorn Band Camps, he got back to me quickly and said, ‘You’re on!’” says Castro.
Although running a four-day residential camp for more than 50 high school students is challenging work, it is well worth the effort when Castro sees them flourish on stage—as artists and leaders—at the Culminating Performance on the last day of camp. This year, the camp begins June 29 and ends with a grand finale concert on July 2.
“I want them to play with enthusiasm and confidence,” says Castro, a proud Longhorn (B.M. ’61) who recently retired from his role as director of the Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán (UT Mariachi Ensemble).
During their brief time on campus, high school students (grades 10-12) work with top mariachi directors and music professors from across the state. The camp is open to students of all skill levels—from beginners to state champions. Many participate in contests held by the University Interscholastic League, a unit within the Division of Diversity and Community and Engagement that oversees athletic, academic and musical competitions in Texas schools, the Texas Association of Mariachi Educators and other organizations.
Among the many advantages of staying in a dormitory at UT Austin and rehearsing with seasoned professionals, the students also have the unique opportunity to work with Castro. Coined as the “El Rey of the mariachi” by the Austin American-Statesman, Castro has gained a lifetime of experience in the music scene.
After years of playing in symphony orchestras and chamber music groups in three states, he was introduced to mariachi music. He soon reached a crossroads when he realized that he most enjoyed strumming to a different tune.
“Mariachi Music hit a chord inside me, so to speak,” Castro says, chuckling. “I reached a point when I had to decide whether I wanted to continue to be a symphonic player or a member of a mariachi. I ended up resigning from the Austin symphony and went with the mariachi.”
For more than three decades, he has been pouring his heart and soul into his music, traveling with his band mates to gigs across the Southwest. He hopes his students will feel the same sense of joy when they take the stage at the Culminating Performance with their instructors on Saturday afternoon at the Bates Concert Hall.
It’s one thing to memorize lyrics and carry a tune, but playing it with passion is what moves the audience to tears, Castro says.
“I tell my students, ‘You have to know these songs and have an appreciation for the music,” he adds. “When it’s well done, it’s a beautiful piece of music.”
To find that passion, students must understand the stories behind the music that celebrates life and death, love and heartache. In classes and field trips, they learn about the history of this beloved cultural art form. One activity Castro looks forward to every year is the trip to the Tejano Monument on the rolling green hills surrounding the State Capitol.
“It’s a wondrous thing to see the Spanish conquistador standing there in his full glory,” Castro says. “The vast majority of our students are Tejanos from South Texas, so it’s important to show them that this monument was created for them—to help them understand their heritage and remember where their ancestors came from.”
When they return to their hometowns—ranging from Austin to Dallas to South Texas—Castro hopes his young musicians will remember one very important lesson.
“I hope all my students will remember that mariacheros make good compañeros,” he says. “Everybody has to work together to sound like a group. You have to learn how to trust each other and take care of one another.”