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'We have to tell a story': Wichita middle school mariachi program combines music and culture

Panya Amphone, orchestra director at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School, started a mariachi class at the school last fall.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Panya Amphone, orchestra director at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School, started a mariachi class at the school last fall.

A new mariachi class at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School in Wichita could be the first middle-school mariachi program in the state. Orchestra director Panya Amphone says it's a way to teach students of all backgrounds about the traditional Mexican musical genre.

There’s a new sound drifting out of the orchestra room at Mayberry Middle School these days — deep-bodied bass guitars, lively violins, brassy trumpets and a chorus of young voices singing in Spanish.

De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera,

De colores, de colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera…

It’s a traditional Mexican folk song about finding joy in all the colors of nature. A dozen students in Mariachi de Mayberry, the middle school’s new mariachi band, joyfully sing out and smile as they perform.

Mayberry eighth-grader Jatziry Ramirez Vazquez practices the guitarron, a Spanish-style bass guitar that lends a percussive sound to mariachi music.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Mayberry eighth-grader Jatziry Ramirez Vazquez practices the guitarron, a Spanish-style bass guitar that lends a percussive sound to mariachi music.

“Here in Kansas, specifically in Wichita, there is not a lot of mariachi presence in town,” said Mayberry orchestra director Panya Amphone. “So I figured: See a need, fill a need. And here we are.”

Amphone started the mariachi program at the beginning of the year with six eighth-graders. Since then, the class has nearly doubled. And although about half of Mayberry’s students are Hispanic, most aren’t familiar with the genre that got its start in west-central Mexico in the late 18th century.

“We are teaching everything from scratch,” Amphone said. “Even though a lot of these students … are Mexican in descent or ethnicity, they don’t necessarily all come with musician backgrounds or come from families that have mariachi backgrounds.”

So they’re learning new instruments, like the guitarron, which takes the bass lines of mariachi music, and the smaller vihuela, which looks like a cross between a guitar and ukulele and provides rhythmic support.

Eighth-grader Evelyn Soto plays several instruments and sings, so she was eager to join what could be the first middle-school mariachi program in Kansas.

Eighth-grader Evelyn Soto, right, and Jovanny Gonzales perform a mariachi tune during class at Mayberry Middle School.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Eighth-grader Evelyn Soto, right, and Jovanny Gonzales perform a mariachi tune during class at Mayberry Middle School.

“When I saw my teacher be interested in a new genre of music that was part of my culture, I was impressed,” Soto said. “So when I heard there was going to be a mariachi (class), I was super excited and got in it.”

Mariachi combines many of the performing arts in one genre — instrumental and vocal music, and even a little bit of theater. During a recent class, Amphone reminded his students to bring the lyrics to life with their bodies and facial expressions.

“Fix your posture, ground yourself, unlock your knees. Use your air when you’re singing,” he said. “And remember, we have to tell a story. Don’t just sit there. … Open your arms up, hold your instrument, sing!”

Many of the mariachi students speak Spanish at home. But some don’t know the language at all, so they’re learning it along with the music.

Eighth-grader Aixa Moreno happily translates lyrics for her classmates — tunes like “Arboles de la Barranca,” which means “trees of the canyon,” but actually tells a story of unrequited love.

Launching a mariachi program at Mayberry Middle School required buying several new types of instruments. The Wichita district's music and woodworking shops also crafted special instrument racks.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Launching a mariachi program at Mayberry Middle School required buying several new types of instruments. The Wichita district's music and woodworking shops also crafted special instrument racks.

“It’s very nice, welcoming other people into our culture,” Moreno said. “You can always join it and be in the family of it. It’s just very nice to spread our culture and share it with other people to make them happy.”

Amphone said he hopes other schools consider the genre, especially as classrooms across the state become more diverse.

“By teaching them mariachi, I’m helping them get in touch with their culture, but also getting them in touch with an art form that they can say is born from Mexico,” he said. “It’s something that they can claim as their culture.”

Mariachi de Mayberry will perform 5 p.m. Friday, May 3, at the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University.

They will also perform on the Wichita River Festival Food Court Stage on June 7 at 11:30 a.m.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.