The iconic hats, the intricately embroidered suits and vibrant, boisterous music; sure it sounds and looks just like traditional mariachi music. But one, all-female band in Bogota, Colombia is shaking up the landscape of this male-dominated profession. Amy Lieberman reports from South America.
BOGOTA, Colombia–A small movement of mariachi performers in South America are unraveling a common belief in street-based entertainment industry: mariachi musicians are men and women serve as their sidekicks.
On a Saturday night, Las Alazanas Mariachi Femenino, an all-female mariachi band, not so quietly challenged this stereotype as they filed into their first performance of the night.
The trumpets sounded first, blaring and confident through a dark stairwell. They were followed by a singer and their supporting six musicians into a family’s living room, filled with bold-colored balloons and expectant party guests.
The surprise entrance of the perfectly-timed mariachi playing upbeat folk music from Mexico drew watery eyes from the family matriarch celebrating her 80th birthday.
But the shock didn’t end there. The fact that these nine Colombian mariachi performers were all women, composing one of the few all-female mariachi groups in all of Bogotá, did not go unnoticed by the party guests.
Maria Isabel Lopez, the band’s founder, said it’s a novelty the group uses to its advantage. “We have been forced to show that we can play well, to maintain a very high level of performance,” Lopez said about the heavily male-dominated profession.
But business is good in Colombia. Home to about 20,000 mariachi performers, Colombia is the second largest mariachi scene in Latin America outside of Mexico. And after nine years together, Las Alazanas fill up their calendar with appointments for birthdays, weddings and parties over the phone.
But as Lopez explains, 40, a single mother of four explains, their status comes with a heavy price.
“It’s not easy,” Lopez said, “Many colleagues have said that we cannot play.”
Lopez, a single mother, said it took some time to gain her family’s acceptance for her chosen career, especially since late nights are the norm in this business.
Eventually, Lopez no longer had to justify her skills, profession, or lifestyle choice. Friends and family grew supportive of her and the niche she has carved in their city.
Two of Lopez’s children – both sons – are keeping in line with the family business, and have also started to solicit freelance mariachi work on a regular basis.
“It’s what they know, it’s what they grew up with,” Lopez said, shrugging.
Lopez resettled from her native Bucaramanga – a city eight hours northeast of Colombia’s capital – to Bogotá when she was 17, drawn by her dream of being a musician. It’s the only profession she ever wanted to pursue.
She jumped from mariachi group to mariachi group for years, before she founded Las Alzanas nine years ago. She recognized a market in the popular mariachi industry for an all-female group, but it took some effort to convince others of its appeal.
Interest in Las Alzanas slowly grew, and a few years ago, the women stopped soliciting business on the street, moving inside to the shared office, dressing room and rehearsal room they now rent. The women practice in this dimly lit space once a week, for about five hours.
In 2011, the United Nations Development Program ranked Colombia 91 out of 187 countries on the Gender Equality Index. It’s also a country where about 40 percent of men believe women belong in the home, and gender-based violence is an embedded part of Colombia’s ongoing, nearly 50-year-old internal armed conflict.
Even though the women of Las Alazanas are successfully competing against their male counterparts, they are drawn to highlight their femininity and play the part of performers.
They wear intricately embroidered, tight fighting outfits, wide-rim hats and pointy western-style boots. In preparation for a performance, the nine women bustle together in a cramped dressing room, taking turns at the mirror applying purple and green eye shadow and fixing plastic bouquets of flowers into their hair.
The job gives the musicians an opportunity to work full-time as musicians, which they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do in Colombia.
“It’s more comfortable working with women,” Lida Fernandes de Los Rios said, a mariachi singer who was performing with Las Alazanas for the third time this evening. “It’s just a more respectful atmosphere.”
Fernandes de Los Rios sings whether performing with Las Alazanas or with male-led groups, which often makes her the subject of crude jokes and unwanted stares.
A few of her colleagues in Las Alzanas backed her assertion, but also added that if they perform with male groups, they likely won’t be permitted to play their instruments. They are tasked only with singing, considered a woman’s work, where they serve as the men’s female accompaniment.
Inside the van that transports Las Alzanas from gig to gig, one of the violinists turns on her phone and sings along to pop songs on the radio. The other women effortlessly harmonize.
Lopez, in the front seat, is focused. She fields phone calls soliciting price inquiries, about $225 U.S. for a half-hour performance, and availability for the group.
But once inside the first venue of the night – a family’s home in Soacha, Colombia – Lopez, with her thick, curly hair drawn back, illuminates. She kicks her feet and jostles her hips, guiding her fellow performers, as the full sound of her violin’s notes resonates, caught by the lyrics of love and longing.
The gathering audience is mesmerized. But just as fast as they entered, the trumpeters lead the way out of the room, and back into the dark stairwell.
There will be two more performances tonight, in different corners of Bogota’s urban sprawl, and Las Alzanas have to be on time.