Vocalist Diana Olivares on mariachi, forming an all-woman band, and “las grandes” who came before her.
Interview by Kimi Eisele
Diana Olivares is a mariachi vocalist who has taught vocal workshops for the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos, and Mariachi Atzlán de Pueblo High School. She is a recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. I spoke with Diana about her relationship with music, women mariachi musicians, and creativity during Covid.
Can you talk about how you got involved in mariachi music and how you became a vocalist?
What’s really beautiful about Tucson is that the mariachi culture runs so deep here. Programs like the one at Davis Elementary School, where they start super young—that’s fabulous. But I started much later, at the end of my junior year in high school. I was a clarinet player, which I’d started around age nine or ten, then played in the school band and orchestra program. I learned to read music really fast. I was usually first chair in band, and I was picked to direct my band and conduct in seventh grade and even picked up the movements of what the conductor would do with his arms. I also remember singing when I was really young living in Mexico. I moved to the US when I was five and I didn’t speak any English.
Where did you move from?
I’m from Agua Prieta, Sonora, a border town. I did not go to a school that was bilingual and I did not have a teacher that spoke Spanish. I would get taken out of class to go tutor with my ESL teacher. That was quite an experience. I have some memories of having a pretty frustrated kindergarten teacher. She would lose her patience at not being able to understand me. That was tricky, but I picked it up so quickly. I didn’t develop an accent like a lot of people do. In fact, I sound very American, I think.
So, your parents were both Spanish speakers and didn’t speak English in the home?
They did not speak English in the home. My mom still does not speak English. And my dad had a very thick accent. They made it a rule in the house that we could only speak Spanish so that we wouldn’t lose that language, as I’ve seen so often with some like cousins or family members. My sister and I were not allowed to speak English in the home. Now I’m grateful for it. In the fourth grade, when I started playing clarinet, we moved to South Tucson. That’s when I showed up to a school that had kids that looked like me—they were brown and they spoke Spanish. That was so eye-opening.
The band program there was so small, and a lot of the kids wouldn’t show up to class, so I basically had private lessons with my band teacher. I grew really proficient at reading music, and he put me in the middle school concert, which was a fantastic experience. Then when I did join middle school, I auditioned for the district band and was selected.
I had an experience when I was 12 years old, in seventh or eighth grade, during in a concert with the district band. Something came over me during the performance that made me cry. I was so moved by the music we were playing. I was surrounded by these woodwind instruments and there were swells in the music and crescendos. It was so affecting that it made me start crying on stage as I was performing. I vowed to myself at that moment that I would do this for the rest of my life. I was just completely addicted to the music and to being onstage and performing. Since that point, I’ve never wavered. I’ve always had a really clear direction that music was for me. Even though being a musician sometimes is not the easiest, or like some would say, the most lucrative, gig, you know? But I just have never wavered from that.
It sounds like your early school experience was powerful. Was there musical influence at home in your family as well?
Really, the only exposure was from my dad, who played guitar. He was a musician when he was younger; he played percussion in a band. He picked everything up by ear. He sang really well. My parents didn’t push me, but my dad was very proud. He would show up to my concerts with a tape recorder and record the whole thing and then play it for family. It was adorable. He listened to it on car trips, too. It felt really nice to be a fifth grader in the middle school concert and then get off stage and my parents were there so proud. It’s been a real gift to have their support. Maybe that’s partly why I continued it—my parents just smothered me with kisses after each concert.
That’s wonderful. You experienced both internal and external rewards. And when did you discover mariachi?
I still didn’t even really want anything to do with mariachi in high school. My dad bought himself a vihuela, a traditional instrument in mariachi, and he would play around the house. I had no interest in it. I really held on to my Americanness. I’d been mocked and ridiculed for not knowing English when I was younger when I’d had classmates that were white and blonde and blue eyed. I was called DYE-anna at school instead of DEE-anna. I introduced myself as DYE-anna, and I had no interest in the Mexican music my parents would listen to at home. I loved rock. I joined a rock band in high school.
But then I saw the mariachi group play a school concert at Cholla High School. They played a piece called “El Cascabel.” It’s a very exciting and virtuosic piece—all of the instrument sections have a solo, the violin, the guitars, the trumpets. It just blew me away. I said, I’m going to learn how to do that. I picked up a violin and I taught myself to play. I knew how to read music very well. Then I joined orchestra class at Cholla High School and mariachi.
Did playing mariachi music coincide with any kind of examination of your own cultural identity at that age?
Yes, but not in high school. I was DYE-anna and I lived in the US and I didn’t like Mexican music. That didn’t really change until after I graduated high school. Eventually it led to a deeper dive into why this music is important to me and to this place where I live. But I first joined because it looked fun to play. I wanted to play the really fast violin solos. I also heard a girl sing a really beautiful mariachi song called “El Pastor,” with falsettos she had to hit. It was in a minor key, so it sounded really sad and spooky and I looked at her and said, I want to be able to do that.
My first public experience singing in a school mariachi concert was so much fun. My dad was over the moon. He would practice with me after school for hours. I had three songs I had to learn, and I would have him play his vihuela and guitar over and over, while I practiced on violin. I’ve always been very motivated and driven. I never complained about practicing. Whenever mariachis would come to town, my dad would record their performances on the local access channel on VHS and show them to me. So I got deep into it.
Once I graduated, I had dreams of joining the best mariachi group in town, Mariachi Sonido de Mexico. I made it into their group three or four months after I graduated high school. I spent 10 years with them. I don’t know what it is, but I see something, I’m like, that’s what I want, and somehow it happens. I’ve been really lucky that way. At the same time, I don’t want to discount the work, discipline, and hours upon hours of regular practice on my skills and continued development. I’ve always trained and worked hard as well and continue to do so today.
With Mariachi Sonido de Mexico, working professionally as a mariachi musician, I really started loving my culture. I started realizing that the language is so beautiful. Everything sounds so much more beautiful and poetic in Spanish. I took trips to California and to Mexico, to Guadalajara, the birthplace of mariachi. We accompanied big artists that I’d seen on TV. We opened concerts for Mariachi Vargas, the best mariachi in the world. All of that really made me comfortable and a great musician on stage.
I started introducing myself as Dee-ana, because everybody else called me Dee-ana. I saw the importance of honoring my parents and what they mean to me.
I also started studying opera because I wanted to develop my voice for mariachi. In opera, I couldn’t believe what the body could do without any amplification from a microphone. I said, I want to do that. When I started training, I saw that phonetically, even my name should be pronounced Dee-ana, because that’s how it looks in the phonetic alphabet.
I just started my own band a few months ago. Las Azaleas, an all-female group. We play music either composed or made famous by female Latina musicians just to help expose their work.
I love that. What are some of songs and musicians in your repertoire?
We love Maria Teresa Lara. Her brother Agustin Lara was a famous superstar in Mexico, and not many people know his sister wrote or co-wrote many of the pieces he made famous. I wanted to give her some credit, so we play some of her tunes. Each month we spotlight a new artist or composer on our website and write a blog on them. We put out a music video performing one of their tunes and we do podcast, which is really fun. For example, we recently spotlighted Eydie Gormé, and I was able to talk with her son, David Lawrence, a Hollywood composer who composed for the films, High School Musical and American Pie. He’s fantastic and he told me about his mom’s experience working with Trio Los Panchos in the ’60s.
We just did all this in May during the pandemic.
It sounds like COVID has been fruitful for your creativity in some ways. You started a band, a web site, a blog and podcast.
After my time in Mariachi Sonido de Mexico, I started focusing on the opera and on teaching. Currently I have a voice studio and I work with a lot of mariachi students in town. Right now, through Zoom, obviously. All I do is Zoom people all day to give them their lessons.
I was also getting a lot of work singing opera, and I’m a teaching artist for Arizona Opera, which I’ve done it for four seasons. I also sing gigs with other opera companies in town or a church gig here and there, and I was doing a lot of that. And then, like so many artists, all of my gigs were getting canceled. I was going to be the voice instructor for the Tucson International Mariachi Conference. That was cancelled, though they did manage to put out something virtually, which set an example for other conferences around the nation to follow. But I was really bummed out about all those cancelled gigs.
I don’t like to feel things I don’t like to feel, right? I was really bummed out about the no gigs. I thought, How can I do something to change this?
I didn’t want to complain about women who didn’t get credit publicly, but I felt a little bit embarrassed about not knowing that a song I love, like “Besame Mucho,” was composed by a Mexicana. If I didn’t know this, how many other people don’t know this? And why did it take this long for me to find this out? How many people are unaware of the name Consuelo Velazquez when, in mariachi everybody knows, José Alfredo Jiménez’s name or Miguel Aceves Mejía, these male composers. I didn’t want to take the stance of complaining. I just wanted to provide the content that wasn’t so readily available to me. So I’m shining a light on these women.
Celebrating them sort of speaks for itself. Just by focusing on them you’re already shifting the narrative, in a way.
I’ve been a violin and vocal instructor at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference for 13 years. What I see when I teach there is that the number of girl musicians is starting to out-balance the male musicians. But once they graduate high school, not many of them continue to play. I could not imagine that for myself. I just want to encourage everybody to start their own groups, start a three-person band. Because that’s what I did.
I had always had this idea of starting a group myself and I just kept thinking about it, until I said, Okay, let’s just try this. I had two of the girls in my studio singing already and I reached out to my former director from Mariachi Sonido de Mexico, Andrea Gallegos. Now I’m her director. It’s been a great thing to have her with us because she has such experience running a very successful group for so long.
And for young kids to see an all-girl group, it’s powerful. Maybe they don’t think “all-girl group.” They just think, “Oh, wow. A great band.”
We’ve been lucky. From booking our first exclusive for the podcast to learning how to film or livestream music videos, I want to say things have really snowballed for us. We’ve even had small live concerts.
How do you do those?
We were able to livestream them and we had small, very socially distanced, masked, outside event at the Casa Sosa Carrillo, thanks to Betty Villegas and the Los Descendientes de Tucson who allowed us to use the space. We had about 30 people tops. It was such a blessing because we hadn’t performed just in general in public for so long. We had a concert at the Gaslight Theatre with their porch concert series with 50 cars spaced out the parking lot. And then we had a Dia de los Muertos concert, where Mayor Regina Romero honored those lost to Covid in Pima County with an altar dedication.
Do you focus more on traditional mariachi or do you also play hybrid or contemporary work?
While Las Azaleas currently does not have trumpets or guitarrón, which are traditional mariachi instruments, we do consider ourselves a mariachi. Every one of the members in the band is a mariachi musician and has had a long history of it. It’s more about taking traditional or folk music from Mexico and adapting it to our instrumentation. At this point, we mostly play boleros and ballads that were originally composed by people like Maria Grever. She composed “Júrame,” which is performed in classical music a lot. Or “Bésame Mucho,” which was composed by Consuelo Velasquez, a Mexicana. That song is done the world over, jazz, instrumentals mariachi, and pop music. I wouldn’t consider “Bésame Mucho” a mariachi song but it’s a Mexican song.
I don’t want to ask the impossible, but is there a song that you just love to sing?
I go through my phases. I like songs that start off in a minor key, a more spooky setting and then blossom to a major. I like “Perfidia. Nat King Cole has a really great version of “Perfidia.” I like the ballads “Así” and “Noche de Ronda.” I recorded a little EP in 2018, Historia del Abandono. It’s just me and guitar, stripped down. I was trying to paint a picture through sound of sitting around with people in a small gathering singing music as is so often done in Mexico, with friends and family at the end of the night. I really wanted to channel that. The songs are sung from the perspective of someone who starts out in love but loses their other half and, with each song, we hear the singer’s despair and solitude until nothing is left of the singer except the ghost-like folk tales surrounding their story, as with so many folk stories passed down through generations in Mexico.
And who are your heroines? Your favorite women mariachis?
I love Rocío Dúrcal. She was from Spain and had an incredible crossover career here in Mexico. She was basically Juan Gabriel’s muse. He wrote music that she sang. She had the range, she had the emotion. She was just a superstar. All of her tunes are amazing and so moving. I love her.
As far as composers, my current favorite is María Grever. She was not a mariachi composer, but a lot of her songs have been arranged for mariachi. I really love “Te quiero, dijiste.” It was done in English too. It goes, “Magic in the moon light, More than any June night.” In Spanish “Si te quiero mucho mucho, mucho, mucho. It’s just a lovely song. I mean, “I love you so much. So so so so so much.” It’s is so sweet.
Well, yes, I have to add her to the list, too. When I was in high school when I was getting into mariachi, that was my first cassette tape, her “Canciones de Mi Padre,” I wore that down. I listened to it both sides.
I still wear it down.
Ha! We play a lot of her music and we featured her on our blog. I just love her. I felt so proud she was from Tucson and her versatility is impressive. From “You’re no good, you’re no good…” to “Ay, que laureles tan verdes…” She mainstreamed mariachi music legitimately and beautifully. She had the best mariachi musicians behind her, and she paid homage in a beautiful, sincere, traditional way. She’s a pioneer for sure. I love her. I have to add her to the top of the list.
I think a lot lately about how Covid has taken away some of the intimate closeness that happens when people sit around and sing together. It seems like the art form that has been most directly hit.
I cannot wait to just see my friends, have them over for some tequila and social time. And as things start unwinding, somebody pulls out a guitar and we all connect with singing.
That sounds dreamy. I want to come.