Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rafael Mendez on Itinerarios

Rafael Mendez was a mere joven, all of 9 years old, when he was drafted into Pancho Villa’s army. The general liked the way the young man played the bugle. At the height of his storied career, trumpeter Rafael Mendez was known around the world. He played in the MGM orchestra, performed on the Red Skelton show, and entertained with his two sons who were also trumpeters. On this week’s Itinerarios we hear the tone, technique and showmanship which made Rafael Mendez one of the greatest entertainers to come out of Mexico. Flight of the Bumblebee and more on Itinerarios this Sunday at 7 o’clock.

Rafael Mendez was born into a family of Mexican musicians. They came from the small town of Jiquilpan, Michoacan. This points up a couple of interesting aspects of “classical” music in Mexico. First, there are band instruments and fiddles found nearly everywhere in Mexico. Forget the notion that Mexico’s music is based on the guitar. Look at the mariachi orchestras and you find a combo of strings, guitars and trumpets. But more importantly, walk around almost any town large or small in Mexico and you will eventually hear a band rehearsing. The Rossini overture they are playing might not sound exactly as you expect it, but many of those bands can and do play all the notes. A frequent element of a town fair, or “feria”, is a band contest, where bands from several surrounding towns, match off against each other. Of special note are the bands which are found in remote parts of the State of Oaxaca.

Another interesting aspect of music making in Mexico is how often it stays within the family. The case of the Mendez family is not exceptional. This is not to say that every Mexican musician is descended from musician parents, but on the other hand, it is not unusual. Interesting in the case of Rafael Mendez is that he is already 2nd generation. He passes on his trumpet playing skills to his twin sons, Ralph and Robert, and like the Mendez family orchestra in Mexico, Rafael and his sons would frequently perform as a trumpet trio.

James Baker

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