Mariachi Plaza has been home to many troubadours, seeking to serenade the ears of passersby with their songs for sale. Across the way, this tradition has held true in the local neighborhood bar, Eastside Luv, a familiar and favorite spot of mine and many, away from the “Los Angeles” of late but with an added interactive twist to los Canciones de su Padre. For several months now, the barra monument to many things Mexican and Mexican American culture has been hosting “Mariachi-Oke!” Yes, it is what it sounds like, and it is the first and third Sunday of every month. Patrons step on to the stage and attempt to belt out the ballads of Beltran, Negrete, Gabriel, and Fernandez without fear and hopefully, without forgetting the lyrics. There are no bouncing balls highlighting the sing along words; it’s a sink or swim policy that ESL holds, which has filtered out the amateurs, but not always the hard of hearing. Not to worry, though, you are in more than good hands with the Trio Ellas, the live mariachi music accompaniment who will toss you a lifesaver from time to time when you feel, and when the audience lets you know, that you’re drowning.
The three very talented young ladies Natalie Cortez (Guitarron), Suemy Gonzalez (Violin), and Stephanie Amaro (Guitar) make up this trio. Every other Sunday night, they explore the range of mariachi music, from somber love songs to ballads of brokenhearted lovers scorned by cheating spouses. Emotional catharsis is music, and very much mariachi. The group took some pre show time on the ESL patio to chat with us about life, prison, and the love of music.
The girls powder, “eye line”, and paint their lips, interchanging cosmetic tools of the trade while I prepare my questions.
How did you guys start playing Mariachi and with each other?
SG: It all happened one day when we had no money (laughs). Actually I had just moved to LA and I moved in with the bass player Nelly and I got a call one day from our current guitar player Stephanie saying, ‘Hey Dude, I’m broke’ and I’m like, “Me too. What should we do?” ‘Let’s go do talón’. Talón in mariachi language is paying per song, which is what you do when you’re broke. So it was something like a Tuesday night we went over to a restaurant in Pasadena. We met up there and we started playing for people at their tables per song and then the manager there liked our music, and told us ‘Hey I am going to be managing another restaurant next month, do you guys want to go play there weekly?’ We said sure and made a job out of it. It just took off from there.
Where did you guys meet?
SA: Well, yeah, kind of. We were always the only girls in these 12 piece male mariachi ensembles, and, we were pretty much looking for an escape. The violinist Suemy plays all the trumpet parts, all the three violin parts, and the vocal parts. We don’t really need any of those dudes.
SG: Stephanie actually had her own mariachi group and I use to help…
SA: Oh, that’s right!
SG: …I used to be in her group, which was “Alma De Mi Tierra”, right?
SA: I totally forgot about it, I blocked it out of my memory.
SG: She used to be my manager. Now, I manage her.
SA: You think you do… (laughs)
SG: I’m just kidding.
Did your parents get you involved?
SG: They would tie me up in the garage and make me practice for 10 hours a day and not feed me…
SG: Just kidding. I first started playing violin when I was 5 years old, and when I was 12 I started playing mariachi because my mom wanted me to get in touch with my Mexican roots…
SA: She is sorry now.
SG: She is very sorry now.
SG: She totally regrets it. She took me to the San Jose mariachi festival where I actually fell in love with mariachi myself. I went back home to Sacramento and started playing with local groups around there, and started learning songs more and more. Now we are here today doing our own thing.
SA: I didn’t start till I was 19. I still kind of don’t, and didn’t speak Spanish at the time. I hadn’t really heard too much Ranchera music, but I went to Cielito Lindo to see Sol de México on Cinco de Mayo one year. I think it was ’99.
Suemy and Nelly take a moment from making up there faces to let out a sigh of nostalgia and amazement. Was ’99 that long ago?
SG + NC: Awwwoooohhhhh…
SA: I know…and I liked it. I thought it was cool. My dad was a musician, but he really wasn’t into Mexican music at all when we were kids. So for me it was kind of a rebellion thing going back to traditional music. I just started learn as much as I can since then. It’s been ten years now.
SG: Nelly our bass player actually has an advantage because everybody in her family is mariachi.
NC: It runs in my family so…
Everyone in your family played?
NC: Not everybody but it kind of…all of the male side. Obviously back then women weren’t allowed to play. So, it’s just me and my cousin, the females that play mariachi. Everyone else…guys. Uncles, cousins, great cousins, great uncles…grandpa. It’s in the family.
So you do you guys feel that you are stepping out being a female group playing male dominated music?
NC: I really don’t think its male dominated anymore.
SA: Yeah, I was going to say that.
NC: We’re not the only ones. There are a couple female ones out there.
SG: We are stepping out in the aspect that we don’t call ourselves mariachi. We’re not Mariachi Ellas or Mariachi Trio Ellas We just call ourselves Trio Ellas because if you want to go down the traditional road, looking at this, were not wearing the skirts or the traditional outfit. We’re wearing pants. And we sing a variety of songs. English, Spanish…what else Chinese, Arabic (laughs)? We are pretty kick back when we do our performances. It’s just not like all structured. We just want to have fun musically and with everybody. It’s more intimate.
NC: Yeah, and my favorite genre is trio. That’s why I am glad that this project came up. I like mariachi but I’m not so infatuated with it. I love trio music. I’m more like the romantic side. I grew up with Los Tres Ases, Los Dandies, Los Panchos, and all the trio. That’s my favorite.
SA: Yeah, good one with the trio. We’re really into trio music. I don’t get the same feeling when I hear mariachi trumpets, and it’s like “MARIACHI SPECTACULAR”. Give me three old dudes in suits.
One of the ESL bartenders makes himself known by offering drinks to the ladies; Suemy sticks to wine, Nelly goes with Stella Rose, and Stephanie’s drink of choice, a Sophia Coppola, champagne in a can.
How has the “Mariachi-oke” experience been for you girls?
NC: It challenges us. Sometimes people come in with whatever song their grandpa use to sing and they want to sing it now. They tell us “can you play us so and so…” when are minds are like going a hundred miles an hour.
SG: But the good thing about us is that we can improvise and we can play along with them.
NC: Yeah, It’s cool. I like this experience and it’s just a kick back place.
SG: Yes, it is always ugly though when there is alcohol and a microphone. So I will say that. (laughs)
And what are you girls looking forward to tonight?
NC: Good singers.
SG: Sober singers.
SA: We still believe they are out there… somewhere.
The experiment continues this Sunday, March 7th at the Eastside Luv Wine Bar and Queso. Bring your lyrics and a loose sense of sobriety.
Visit http://www.eastsideluv.com/ for more info