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Mariachi festivities ... for Cinco de Mayo and almost anytime.

Trumpeting, strumming, crooning, and stomping their heels, mariachis regularly play their own brand of night music in restaurants around the West. But their performances reach a crescendo during Cinco de Mayo, when the spirited music is keynote to this month's Mexican holiday celebrations. Whether you're taking in one of the major festivals (listed on page 23) or simply enjoying accompaniment to a Mexican meal, an understanding of the music's traditions and variations will help you appreciate its full range.

From folk music to national symbol

The minimum mariachi group features the violin and trumpet and two instruments used only in mariachi music--the vihuela, a small, five-string guitar; and the guitarron, a guitar-like bass. The last two form the rhythm section. Other instruments are sometimes added. From its origin among peasants in the Jalisco highlands, mariachi music grew into a national symbol that crosses class barriers. In the early 1900s, President Porfirio Diaz brought mariachis to Mexico City for the first time, and their blend of indigenous and European musical traditions earned a permanent place in the country's cultural heart. It was in Mexico City that the mariachis adopted the traje de charro--bolero jackets with silver or suede buckle fasteners, tight-fitting slacks with silver or suede detailing on the sides, boots, and scarf-like bow ties. Once the outfit of wealthy horsemen, this is now the distinctive costume of mariachis. You can hear some of the music's most famous practitioners on October 6 and 7, when Universal Studios Hollywood in Universal City presents its annual International Mariachi Festival, featuring world-famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, Los Camperos, Los Galleros, and Sol de Mexico. Telephone for more information six weeks before the event; (818) 508-5444.

A few favorite songs

"La Bamba" may be the only request that comes to your mind, but mariachi musicians often know hundreds of tunes representing a century of songwriting. Here, we suggest a few titles you can rattle off like an aficionado the next time you're treated to a tableside serenade. (Courtesy dictates that you should tip about $5 a song for requests; sometimes this money is the mariachi's only compensation.) Two famous songs that represent the earliest mariachi style are "Las Olas" (The Waves) and "La Negra" (The Dark Woman). Listen to the rhythms. "Ella" (She), "Volver, Volver" (Come Back), and "El Rey" (The King) sound similar to American country music and have similar themes, concentrating on lost loves and regional chauvinism. "Sabor a Mi" (Little Reminders of Me) and "?De Que Manera Te Olvido?" (How Can I Forget You?) are two beautiful and moving romantic songs. A good birthday request is "Las Mananitas" (Early Morning Serenades); the mariachis may follow this with "Happy Birthday" in English. To hear a sampling of music, ask for a potpourri, or medley.

Mariachi festivities the last week of April, first week of May

Here, we list the largest celebrations in 10 Western cities. Many smaller cities and communities throughout the West also host mariachi festivities in observance of Cinco de Mayo. Food is mainly Mexican. Unless noted otherwise, admission to all events is free.

Albuquerque. Civic Plaza. 400 Marquette Avenue. May 6, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; (505) 768-3490.

Denver. Columbus Park (Plaza de la Raza). W. 38th Avenue, between Lipan and Pecos streets. May 5, noon to 5 (if rained out, event will be held May 12); (303) 640-4785. Santa Fe Drive. Between 8th and 12th streets. May 6, noon to 10; 534-8342. Skyline Park. Sixteenth Street Mall, on Arapahoe Street. May 4 and 5, 11 to 9; 534-6161.

Los Angeles. Belvedere Park. Alberto Diaz Plaza, at the intersection of Mednik Avenue and First Street. May 5 and 6, noon to 7; (213) 268-9302. Broadway. Between First and Seventh streets. April 29, noon to 8; 466-3434. Hollywood Bowl. Mariachi USA Festival. Tickets, sold through Ticketmaster outlets, cost $10 to $50. Huntington Park. 3355 E. Gage Avenue. May 5, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Admission is $10 (event is a dinner dance); 585-1155. Olvera Street. May 5 and 6, noon to 8; 856-5153.

Phoenix. Downtown. In front of new Phoenix Mercado, 542 E. Monroe Street. May 4, 5, and 6; noon to midnight Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday, and 10 to 10 Sunday; (602) 234-1873. KVVA Radio Cinco de Mayo events: American Park and Swap, Washington and 40th streets, May 3, 6 to 10 p.m.; Mesa Amphitheater, May 4, 7 to 11 p.m.; Downtown Mesa, May 5, noon to 11; Guadalupe, El Mercado Tianguis, Avenida del Yaqui, May 6, 5 to 9. For more details, call 266-2005. South Mountain. South end of Central Avenue. May 5, 1 to midnight; May 6, 1 to 11; 268-3544 (ask for Jimmy Munoz).

Portland. Waterfront Park. May 4, 5, and 6, 11 to 11; (503) 292-5752.

Sacramento. Convention Center, at the intersection of 14th and L streets. May 6, 5 to 8; (916) 443-4620.

San Diego. Old Town State Historic Park. May 5 and 6, 11 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.; (619) 296-3161.

San Francisco. Potrero del Sol Park. Potrero Avenue and 24th Street. May 5 and 6, noon to 6. Saturday parade starts at 20th and Mission streets at 11 a.m.; (415) 291-0900 (ask for Tony Martinez).

San Jose. Almaden Boulevard. Between Santa Clara Street and Park Avenue. May 6, 10 to 5; (408) 923-1646.

Tucson. Kennedy Park. May 4, 5, and 6; 5 to 11 Friday, noon to 11 Saturday and Sunday.
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Date:May 1, 1990
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