“It Sounds Like Mexico”: Lessons in Mexican Folk Harp

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Adrian Perez, 30, has been playing the Mexican folk harp for 15 years. The instrument traces traditional roots to jarocho music of the southern coast of Veracruz and mariachi music from western Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán. Perez is a recipient of SFA’s 2019 Master-Apprentice Artist Award, which supports artists in Arizona working in tradtional forms to pass on their knowledge and practice to new generations. He will work with apprentice Ivan Miranda, a junior at Tucson’s Pueblo High School. who has been studying harp for two years. BorderLore editor Kimi Eisele spoke to both Adrian and Ivan about learning, studying, and performing the Mexican folk harp.

Ivan Miranda and Adrian Perez
Ivan Miranda and Adrian Perez

BorderLore: Can you introduce us to the Mexican folk harp?

Adrian Perez: Historically, Mexican harp has been encompassed in the rural music of Mexico. Its origins are from Spain. The Spanish conquest brought instruments to the new world to Indigenous peoples in Mexico through the state of Veracruz primarily. The moment it touched Veracruz, it seems, the harp started permeating through the rest of Mexico. Different Indigenous peoples around Mexico used a variation of that same instrument to play and develop their own style of music. So, you can go from Veracruz to Jalisco to Michoacán to Nayarit to Chihuahua to Sonora, and they’ll all have different distinct styles of playing. Where my interest lies is in understanding where those different styles begin and how to keep them alive.

BL: How does the harp enter the mariachi world?

AP: From what I understand, mariachi was comprised of guitarra de golpe, which is like a guitar with five strings and also a variation of a Spanish instrument, the harp, and a violin or two. The harp’s role in the original mariachi ensemble was bass. There was no bass instrument other than the harp. It took on the role of the bass primarily and melody second, after the violin. In Veracruz, the harp was primarily used for melodic harmonies and solos and had a more central role in son jarocho music.

Adrian Perez with his harp

BL: Adrian, can you talk about how you started learning to play the instrument?

AP: My dad is a trumpet player, not professionally, but he played in high school. And he played guitar. So did my grandpa, so did a couple of my uncles. Growing up, we’d have birthday parties and cookouts and barbecues, and they’d pull out their instruments and play. One of the first pictures that my grandma gave to me when I was a kid is of me in the bathtub, with a tennis racket, holding it like a guitar. Somebody knew that I was already inclined to play music. As I grew up, I got involved with playing classical guitar. I was in Catholic school until fifth or sixth grade and played guitar with the church. Then I started studying classical guitar with a professional from Ciudad Juarez. He hooked me up with his cousin who was a Berklee College of Music graduate–a blues, jazz and rock guitarist. This was at the age of 10 or 11. I was just thrown into this music scene.

Going into middle school, I pivoted into playing sports and did track and basketball and baseball. I ended up finding my way back to music kind of in a weird way. When they asked me, What elective would you like to take? I thought, I don’t want to do a typing class. I’ll take guitar. I’ll just play a few chords, call it a day. I could get an easy A because I had prior knowledge. So, I get there and it’s actually not just a guitar class. It’s a guitar class with an emphasis in mariachi. The teacher saw I was catching on quick and started inviting me to rehearsals and then to be part of the performing group and then to start traveling. She pulled me in little by little. Before I knew it, I was standing on a stage with mariachi pants and the whole suit. That was never even in my plans. What I thought would have been an easy A turned into, like, the rest of my life, with an instrument in my hand and mariachi being a major part of my life.

BL: I feel like you should be singing that story, since you’re sitting there holding a guitar.

AP: Yeah! That’s a good idea. In high school, I got involved with the harp. In El Paso, they used to have a mariachi conference much like they do here in Tucson. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán used to come. They are the world’s greatest mariachi. They’ve been around 120 years—the name, not the guys! They’d show up to town and do workshops for two or three days, and then present a concert. I went as a guitar player. When you go to the conferences, you’ll notice there’s a large population of violinists and of trumpet players, mainly because those instruments are cheaper and easier to acquire. The guy teaching harp was just practicing his own stuff, messing around, unlike the other teachers who had 40 kids to teach. I poked my head out, What’s that sound over there? It sounded like a classical guitar to me. It was Julio Martinez. He started showing me some exercises. I think he could tell right away that my hands were inclined to the harp. My classical guitar training helped. The technique is very similar in that sense—just a tilt of the hand. We spent a couple of hours there doing exercises. It was like, Oh, man, I just made a new friend and started learning a new instrument, another new friend. He tells my parents to consider buying me a harp. We ended up using some kind of online forum, back when it was dial up, and found a harp in East Texas from some college professor, and they shipped it over.

But I didn’t have a teacher. Who do I go to?  How do I tune this thing? Do I buy strings? It’s a burden. You need a big car to transport it to the gigs. I was part of a youth group and I found a local harp player, Omar Lopez, who had more experience by two years. He would teach me whatever he knew. I became more exposed to recordings because I couldn’t find stuff about mariachi harp hardly anywhere. There were two groups that had recorded material, Los Camperos and Mariachi Vargas. I started digging through recordings. I would go with my parents to Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua to all the Mexican music stores, just searching for the sound of a mariachi harp. What does it do? How do you emulate that? I started going outside of the mariachi tradition to find examples of what other Mexican or Latin American folk harp sounds like. I would just start picking out things and pulling out things by ear and using my friend who was teaching me to kind of just piece everything together.

Adrian Perez with his harp

At another mariachi conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I meet a gentleman named Sergio Alonso. He plays with Mariachi Los Camperos currently. He’s been there for probably 20-plus years. He’s another advocate for mariachi harp. He was awarded a master-apprentice award in LA. He took me under his wing and invited me to LA. I was 15 or 16 years old. In the mariachi group I was playing with, the director, Amelia Garcia, played with a professional female group in LA, so she would go back and forth to practice with her girls. She became a friend, a mentor, and she would take me on these trips to LA with her. She would go to her rehearsal, and I would go with Sergio Alonso, and he would show me what he knew about harp. Their group, Mariachi Los Camperos has a 60-year of trajectory in the music. Not just performance, but education. They’re also recipients of National Endowment of the Arts Awards, and they’re Smithsonian Folkways artists, so they have a posture that not only leads to preserving the music, but to teaching it. That was a key point for me, to learn under somebody like that. Because it showed me not only to love the instrument and to play well, but how to have a pedagogical approach.

I studied with Sergio for about five or six years. Part of studying under him transpired into me filling in for him for large performances across the US with Mariachi Los Camperos, at the age of 18 then 19, 20, 21. It was cool to come full circle with this guy I had only heard on the recordings. Back then, I had no idea how he did what he did, but I was determined to follow. I’d pick up what he left for me as homework, the recordings, without even knowing that later on he was going to take me under his wing and I was going to be performing with that same group that I strived to be in when I was a kid. That’s really where I began to fall in love with the harp. At that point, I was like, we got to get this thing more mainstream for it to stay alive.

At this point, I’m a college student at the University of Texas and El Paso UTEP studying engineering. I’m a mechanical engineer. It’s a very puzzle-like interaction, where you’re always just figuring out problems and how do you do this, and how do you decompose that. That mindset permeated into my teaching harp. After I graduate, I’m working in El Paso, and Johnny Contreras invites me to teach in Tucson. Johnny’s been a friend of mine since I was about 19 years old. From the mariachi conferences, you just mingle and interface with a lot of people and become friends with them over time. He’s had this harp sitting for a couple of years and he’s like, I want to incorporate it once again to the group and I think you’re the guy to kind of bring it to life and teach a new generation of harpists here in town. That turned in to more friendships. I got involved with Calexico, Sergio Mendoza, Salvador Duran. That gave me hope to really develop players here in town, because I saw there was life for me as harpist after high school. It goes back to my original goal of wanting get this instrument out into the mainstream and show people what this instrument can do, whether it was with Calexico, with a Cumbia band, wherever—there’s a platform for you to show people what harp can do is a good way to continue its legacy and keep it growing and living amongst folk music.

Over various generations of harpists, out comes Ivan, my latest and greatest acquisition to the harp family here in Tucson. He’s my fifth-generation harpist here at Pueblo High School over the course of 10 years.

Ivan Miranda with his harp
Ivan Miranda with his harp

BL: Ivan, can you talk a little bit about your journey with the Mexican folk harp?

Ivan Miranda: I started the mariachi scene when I was in third grade in elementary school. I come from a family not of musicians. It was my generation, me and my cousins, that first got interested in mariachi music. In fact, my two cousins joined the year before I did, and they’re the ones who influenced me to start playing the guitar. I went through third grade to fifth grade playing the guitar, later switching to the vihuela, another five-string variation of the guitar. That’s when I joined into my first community group, Mariachi Inspiración on vihuela. I started experiencing the mariachi scene, heading to the Tucson conference, seeing how many opportunities are out there. I continued with middle school mariachi, joining Los Changuitos Feos, a local Tucson group for about a year, until Johnny Contreras offered me a spot with the harp. It was Johnny who introduced me to Adrian Perez. Under him I’ve been learning wonders about the harp. It’s great to learn an instrument that I still know I have years upon years to learn and just get better with.

BL: What was it like the first time you played the harp?

IM: There was this old classical harp that used to be here, a big black one that had steel strings. I remember practicing at home to the point of almost making my fingers bleed. It was fun times, but those exercises really just showed to me that there’s so much potential on the harp to come. Then I was always worried. I didn’t know how far harp would get me. I didn’t know if I would be ready for the intense focus that comes with it. But I have to say I’m very glad I stuck with it. There’s so many more opportunities I’ve experienced now because of it.

BL: Can you say more about what you were afraid of?

IM: in my opinion, it’s one of the harder instruments of mariachi. It was funny. I got all anxious. I was the only one trying out with harp for Atzlán, and I still had fears that I wasn’t good enough to get in. My mother tells me a couple weeks later, Did Johnny call you? I was like, Why would he call me? She’s like, Because you got in. I was like, I did? It was a complete shock. And from there on, it’s just practice and practice. I know I still have a lot of room to go. It’s great to see other harpists such as Liam, Gonzalo, the ones in Tucson and recently, the ones in McAllen, Texas. It’s great to see how they play and their styles and what I can learn from them as well.

AP: Ivan, it’s kind of funny that you mentioned that you were hesitant at first because one of the first things I told you is, You got to stop playing the vihuela. You gotta leave it completely. If you want to get good fast. The amount of time that you put into this instrument is the amount of time that it’s going to give you back or the amount of sound and experience that it’s going to pay you back with. It’s a very jealous instrument. Same as violin and same as trumpet. If you really want to get good and proficient at it, it’s a sacrifice. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be worth it. But it’s a hard decision for a young person to make when it’s an instrument that’s a whole new world.

Adrian Perez with harp; photo by Steven Meckler
Adrian Perez with harp; photo by Steven Meckler

BL: Does that feel true, Ivan, what he’s saying?

IM: Yes. I was definitely hesitant. I never thought how far could I go with a harp. Definitely the whole lone wolf style. It’s trying to carve out something new in my mind from something I’ve had no experience with. For instance, let’s talk about music, written music. With Atzlan, most of the time the music I’m given is for the bass, for the guitarron. But everything else is just left to interpretation and improvisation. Back when I played armonia, or rhythm instruments, they would have the instructors who would be there to tell you what to play at the exact time and what not to do. So it’s definitely a switch in ideals.

BL: How much does a harp cost?

AP: About $2200, which is a lot of money for a student, when you can go to Guitar Center and get a guitar for $200. So, to convince your parents that you’re going to be focused enough and disciplined enough to learn a harp is a very big argument to make. 

BL: And they’re big. I mean, it’s hard to just swing that over your shoulder and go. 

AP: That’s another reason why the harp kind of died outright. It’s not practical to take to gigs. Because mariachi is a rural type of music. Later, it became commercialized and came down to Mexico City, from rural areas of Mexico, due to producers wanting to put money in film in the golden cinema age of Mexico and create an identity for Mexico backed with regional music. But the guy with the harp–everybody walks down with their violin, their guitar and, you know, they’re down there having a beer and stuff, and the poor guy’s still up there in the mountains slugging this thing down.

Adrian Perez with his harp

BL: How would you describe the sound of the harp?

IM: A piano with strings. My vision of harp before playing it was always of the angels playing the harp with the glissando. My original idea of the harp was that it was very beautiful like an orchestra. But now, hearing the harp sound—it’s a voice, it’s an independent voice in a group of people and the harp’s tone, its sound, is its own style for each individual.

AP: When I started learning, one of the interesting quotes that my teacher Sergio Alonso said to me was this: In mariachi, you have trumpets, you have violins, you have guitarron, you have guitar and vihuela, and everybody’s prescribed their music, right? The music director writes out the arrangement and everybody has their parts, and you don’t really have to think, you just have to read. In an arrangement, if you take out the violins, it’s going to sound different. You take out the rhythms, it’s gonna sound different, you take out the trumpets it’s gonna sound different. He said, I needed to be where if we take out your part, it’s different and not the same; it’s noticeable that you aren’t there. That’s where the discipline is. You have the freedom to do whatever crazy things you want because nobody’s telling you what to do. But you need to have the discipline to be able to play nicely with all the instruments and stylistically be complementary to everything else that’s happening.

When you asked what the harp sounds like, to me harp sounds like Mexico. It feels like Mexico and it looks like Mexico. You can have the ugliest harp or you can have the most beautiful harp, and you can have the most crazy sounding harp, and it can play elegant and beautiful. Or it can play loud and rough depending on the style. It’s so varied in Mexico, and I think that’s totally reflective of harp in terms of sound. The fact that it can play something so elegant, all the way to something super, super, super rough, and still maintain a style and an identity. Like when you go buy tacos, right? There’s different types of meat and different types of salsas and different types of tortillas. And all that can be encompassed into “taco.” When you say, Oh, I’m going to eat tacos that can mean a million things. Same for harp. What does the harp sound like? It could mean a million things.

BL: But it’s always Mexican.

AP: But it’s always Mexican. At least the style that we play.

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