by Kate Woods
The following story is taken from excerpts of an "unpublishable manuscript" that Kate Woods is still working on. The adventures of "Georgia James" are actually the combined real experiences of Kate Woods and Cindy Reifler, possibly the only two white females who for the past decade have made their living playing with mariachis in the cantinas of the Greater Bay Area.

No doubt there are plenty of people in this area who have visited Mexico and experienced the sounds of a mariachi band. But few people have seen and heard a mariachi right here in the Bay Area working in the true mariachi element--a Mexican bar, playing song per song for various customers.

First of all, let me explain what a mariachi is and is not. It is not what you might see on a Jack-in-the-Box commercial, like three or four FAT middle-aged Mexican "minstrels" screaming "Ay yi yi yi ... !' Mariachi is acoustical folkloric music originating from Jalisco, Mexico.

A group is usually comprised of eight players, or elementos, and the instruments include: a guitarron (a huge tortoise-shaped bass guitar), a vihuela (the rhythm guitar), a guitar, three violins, and two trumpets. Everyone is expected to sing at least chorus parts, although trumpet players can be exempt from any vocals. Groups vary, of course. There can be anywhere from five to twelve musicians.

Of the handful of Americans who have learned to play mariachi music, very few have stepped out of the safe "legitimate" performance line of parties, weddings, and folkloric concerts. Some manage to eke out or supplement a living by doing just those type of secure and too few jobs on the weekends, such is their commitment to the music and/or a particular group. And then there are others whose involvement with the music is nothing more than a "cute" and bi-culturally correct hobby. Most authentic mariachis, however, in Mexico as well as here, have to go beyond the pleasant high-paying weekend gigs in order to face financial reality. The precept is this: Make as much as you can, play as much as you can, whenever you can, no matter where or for what or whom, even if it kills you. Because this week may be a fat one but next week you'll probably starve.

My friend, who I will call Georgia James, actually plays violin in one of these groups; she makes a good part of her living working nights with her band going from bar to bar charging songs to clients, a profession known between these musicians as "al talón". She's one of about twelve women in the state of California who plays with a mariachi. But what's more unusual about Georgia is that she's probably the only white female in the state who plays on the mariachi cantina circuit. And when I say "cantina", I do not refer to any south-of-the border dead-fern bar that serves "fajitas".

After hearing some of her stories, I asked Georgia if I could follow her and the mariachi around for a few nights. She said I was crazy but that if I could "hack" it, I was welcome.

The first place we went to is a place called Giovanni's, although Georgia's pet name for it is "The Den 0f Pigs". Of all the many bars on the Redwood City mariachi strip, this one seems to be the most popular. As Georgia explained it to me, the thing about Giovanni's is that they serve hard liquor, unlike so many of the neighboring beer and wine joints. Thus, more clients go there, especially the big clients--the cocaine-indulging clients--who need that extra booze buffer to take the edge off. So more music groups go there in search of those special clients with the big wad. Giovanni's is good on advertising, except Georgia pointed out that it's false advertising. Evidently, the place was established decades ago by an Italian family, but as Redwood City gradually became a mecca for Mexican populace, the main strip went along converting itself from dance club to Mexican bar, from Chinese restaurant to Mexican bar, until eventually the whole strip looked like a typical street in downtown Tijuana. When the Gutierrez family bought the place over they didn't bother changing the outside. On the roof there's a hot pink neon sign that say's "Giovanni's"; on the outside wall the place claims to serve "Italian Lunches and Dinners" in large colorful letters, and boasts a "Cocktail Lounge". Once you're inside, it's obvious that the walls were knocked down to expose one big free-for-all swillroom, a pool table blocking the entrance, a few tiny tables and chairs thrown here and there, juke box in the corner, and one big long bar on the side. Whatever you do, don't ask for a martini. But there's a cook in the back (when he's sober) who makes tacos, Georgia swears, out of cow/cat tongues. And the whole place is full of Mexican men and musicians. The only females besides Georgia and I were a barmaid who never set foot beyond her station, and then the enormous black hooker playing pool who screamed relentlessly "Fuck you, you fucker!" to whichever poor man she was playing against.

I felt idiotically out of place, but Georgia just steam-rolled past everybody like she owned the place, firing her mouth off in rapid Spanish vulgarities, leaving a trail of fist-fights and destruction behind her.

A lot of different groups besides Georgia's walked in and out of the "Den" doing the al talón during the course of the evening, and although they were acoustical groups, they weren't all mariachis. Some groups had Veracruz harps, and some groups went Michoacan style without trumpets. There were Norteño groups (Georgia says mariachis call Norteño groups "Taka-takas ... for obvious reasons"--taka-taka simply being the Mexican vocal sound for imitating a snare drum) and they came with stand-up basses and portable percussion. One group even had two saxophones.

It was insane. There were about four groups aside from Georgia's who stayed and squeezed themselves in between all the drunks, taking turns with songs in front of their prospective clients. Towards the end of the night the place turned into a river of rot-gut, boozed-out cacophony. It was like a battle of the bands which became out and out ugly when the groups themselves got drunk and started cutting each others' songs off before they were finished. I, myself, had to keep chain-smoking so as to always have in hand the weapon of a burning ember to ward off the countless slobbering drunks who spotted me in the corner.

The following afternoon Georgia phoned me with some exciting news. Sounding kind of tipsy and giddy, maybe even a little hysterical, she explained how, several nights before, one of their special bar clients was shot and murdered by his brother-in-law, in his own restaurant. Not that that was anything unusual, she said, but some days later a few of this same client's friends hired her group to play at a funeral. Since he had been such a great client, the band even agreed to do it at a cut rate. So in the morning, there they were in the cemetery, getting drunk with the dearly beloved and playing the dearly departed's favorite songs. Apparently, it became quite a scene: people were putting their beer cans on top of the casket, howling along with the songs, even the mariachi players were bawling (probably for, more than anything, the loss of a sure source of income).

"Sounds like you already had one hell of a day", I said to her.

"You haven't heard the punch line," she blurted. "When we went to collect the money, we found out that that wasn't the special client's funeral."

"What do you mean?" I implored.

"We were playing for the WRONG CORPSE!"

I was stunned.

That night the group did their weekly radio show at the Beacon Theater in San Francisco's Mission District. It was nothing less than pandemonium. In brief, the mariachi is the "back-up" band for an hour-long amateur singing show in which they must accompany various "volunteers" from the audience--the audience waiting between the incredibly sick C-rated films being shown--who waltz up on stage and attempt to sing songs in rare keys. The announcer of the show, the Master of Ceremonies, if you will, would change from time to time into different "funny" Mexican-styled Halloween costumes. He would run up and down the aisles and between the seats with a cordless microphone in hand, forcing pathetic shy illegals to stand up and say their name or sing a song, cracking lame, bigoted jokes, like some sadistic clown terrorizing the audience. When a particularly bad contestant sang--and this happened often--the hundreds in the audience would start cat-calling and whistling, as if to make some kind of a demented payback, building up from a collective shrill to an explosive and deafening screaming mass of human protest amidst a carnival shower of popcorn, nachos, and trash. It was a circus of cacophony.

"That was really ... something else, Georgia," I said, later.

"Oh yeah, yeah," she said with enthusiasm. "This is the best gig we have. Who knows? Someday a talent scout might catch our act and then it's A-DI-OS Den O' Pigs!"

I'm fairly certain she was being earnest.

After the Beacon Theatre show, I followed the group to another weekly job at an Oakland restaurant called Flor de San Blas. Naturally, the group played in the bar area, and their clients were a group of four women all dressed to the nines in exceedingly tight designer jeans, tube tops and spiked heels.

"Jesus!" Georgia remarked. "These bitches should be wearing spurs."

In no time at all, a nearby table of men (their tongues waggling between their knees) descended upon the women like flies on excretion. The table was so full of drinks that not even an ashtray would fit on it, so cigarettes were flung on the floor. Typically, the women started out drinking large and fattening girl-drinks: strawberry margaritas with whipped cream and cherries. Eventually, they switched to shots of hard liquor, every type of booze in the western hemisphere. The men, by this time, had taken over calling out the songs and it looked like an all-night serenade. About 1:00 a.m. an all too-familiar smell invaded the dark bar and the band members kept looking around to pin-point the source of the hellish odor. Just then I noticed a large portion of barf on the floor, right next to one of the spiked heels. The woman sitting next to it, was green and slumped. But I felt worse for Georgia, who happened to be playing right in front of the barf, and whom I know is afflicted with what she calls "vomitphobia". When she spotted it, she started playing like a madwoman, her bow scratching away in a blur as if she were trying to fan away the fumes. They kept playing for this table and the barf until 2:15 a.m.

When we arrived at the "Den" the next and final night of my excursion, some other mariachi was playing full-tilt as another group waited to play in the wings" (on the barstools). So Georgia's group decided to avoid the competition and hit upon a nearby but even more horrid dive called The Glass. This bar, which Georgia calls "The Stench-Hole" (and it literally did smell like urine, stale beer, vomit, bad sex, etc.) was one of the foulest: the women's bathroom was always padlocked, making it extremely embarrassing whenever Georgia or I wanted to relieve ourselves by having to approach the bartender to request the key; they only served beer and win he way of everything; and it was stifling hot due to lack of ventilation.

Business looked slow so Georgia and I sat down where we could and shared a mini-bottle of Lancer's Vin Rose, which tasted like vinegar. Most of her group were heavily involved in one of those dirty little mechanical soccer game tables.

"Don't you guys ever play in a nice place?" I asked her.

"Sure, we do weddings and parties on weekends but we have to do something during the week to make ends meet," she replied. "Besides, our group's pretty lucky because we do have two elegant plantas." (A planta, she explained to me earlier, is a regular weekly gig.)

"What would they be?"

She looked at me as if I were some moronic drunk. "The Beacon Theatre and Flor de San Blas!"


© 1990-2001 Kate Woods


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