A mariachi band that plays video game music? That’s not something you hear every day. A plethora of bands cover game soundtracks, but Mariachi Entertainment System stands out as the only traditional mariachi troupe that transforms 8/16-bit tunes into colorful Spanish melodies. After achieving renown on YouTube, the group steadily made a name for itself among gamers and video game music enthusiasts.
The band was founded by trumpet player David Ortiz (AKA "Dr. Ortiz"). A life-long gamer, his affinity for video games – and specifically video game music – began with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Mario. From there, the soundtracks of other iconic titles would influence his appreciation for the sounds of play.
“I was a gamer and music affected me very, very early,” Ortiz remembered, “I think Mega Man was probably the one game that I just loved those beats and I loved those melodies. Eventually once the consoles, the technology, progressed, games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy really, really sparked that like ‘What is this? It's making me feel weird!’ So those were parts of my influences growing up in gaming and music.”
At around 11 years old, David took his first foray into music by joining a band – much to his chagrin at the time. “My mom forced me. She absolutely forced me, and I didn't want to do it. So I said, ‘Well, I'll just play the free instrument because my mom can't afford it.’ I thought we were poor,” Ortiz explained, “I went upstairs with the teacher to learn the trombone - he scared me to death. And I said that I can't do it. So she bought me a trumpet, and she was like ‘Well go downstairs with the other teacher, he's nice.’ And that's how I started playing trumpet.”
The trumpet has since become David’s primary instrument, but over time he picked up the piano and guitar as well. He continued to hone his skills in the following years until the call to mariachi arrived out of necessity. As a 23-year-old college student, David needed an avenue to make money, and an opportunity to use his musical talents to earn a living presented itself. Ortiz described how his friend recruited him into the mariachi life:
“This buddy of mine was like, ‘You should play mariachi with my group.’ He told me, ‘because I saw you play the piano and I need Mexicans.’ So he gave me a harp, and I had no idea what the hell that was. And he paid me to learn how to play the harp. I suck at it. But I had to learn the language too; I wasn't Spanish speaking. And so I just kind of started learning the repertoire, started learning the instrument, and it's like a fever man, it just catches you. And I learned a lot of repertoire and then eventually I was like I need to play on my instrument. Started playing trumpet, started taking gigs, started making money, and then it became a way of life. And now I can't think of anything else. It's just mariachi to me – it’s what's in me now.”
But what exactly defines mariachi music? The genre has a long history, but here’s the briefest of summaries. Mariachi was born hundreds of years ago, formed from a blend of indigenous Mexican sounds and European instruments (such as the violin and harp) introduced by the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. Modern mariachi as we know it is generally believed to have been taken shape in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the 19th century. Bands originally consisted of roughly four members and a small ensemble of string instruments before growing in size and scope. “And eventually instruments were added and augmented into the ensemble that you see today. Traditionally a stage mariachi is six violins, three trumpets, four rhythm, a harp, and that kind of thing. So it has gone through a really long evolution,” Ortiz clarified. The style’s rural roots soon expanded into urban areas before migrating into the southwestern US in the 1950’s and 60’s. Since then, mariachi has maintained a foothold in the region.
Mariachi Entertainment System is based in San Antonio, Texas. Mariachi forms a significant part of the city’s cultural DNA, dating back to when the city hosted the first International Mariachi Conference in 1979. Numerous bands call the city home, and thus the area hosts an extremely competitive musical landscape. “It’s a brutal scene” said Ortiz. “There are a lot of players. There's a lot of great players.” To stand out amid the crowded genre, David needed to do something unique.
GETTING THE BAND TOGETHER
The idea of Mariachi Entertainment System spawned from the genre’s inherent tendency to cover other styles of music. “If there's one thing that I can say about mariachi is that it is the epitome of covering because all mariachi music is just a cover of some other style,” Ortiz explained. “Every mariachi in the world has a dream of playing some other genre of music with a mariachi [style]. That's all you do. You sit around, you know when you're off, and you're listening to Kool & the Gang and you go ‘This would sound really good with a mariachi [band].’ Every mariachi does this with every kind of music. So I was no different.”
David decided that video game music would mesh great with the style. Not only that, but in doing so may cause listeners unfamiliar with the style to become aware and, hopefully, appreciate mariachi as a musical genre on its own. Associating mariachi with video games, which lies at forefront of modern “coolness,” means that it becomes elevated in the public eye as a result. It’s a necessary mission, as the genre, in David’s eyes, has long stagnated in terms of musical advancement and social relevancy. “When you look at mariachi on television or in movies when they come [on screen], it's always a joke,” David asserted. “It's always, like, five guys in the back all out of tune, fat, drunk. There's this big joke and I hate that.” David believes mariachi has suffered from a public stigma solidified by decades of largely disreputable depictions in spaghetti westerns and similar films.
To help improve that reputation, David stated that bringing class to the style is part of mariachi Entertainment System’s goal. “Yeah, we're going to play video game music and yes, we're trying to make it cool, but we want to execute well.” Ortiz explained, “We want to play our music well. We want to execute at a high level and show you - show people - that we're classy at the same time.”
The fact that both mariachi and video game music suffer the same lack of widespread recognition among the general public offered another satisfying incentive for an enthusiast of both. “There's a whole other group of people who don't take video game music seriously,” Ortiz claimed, “so we do them both with class, with execution.”
YouTube offered a prime platform for David’s musical venture. Initially, though, a lack of confidence deterred him until his wife encouraged David to give it a shot. “She pushed me,” David said. “[She] was like, ‘You're very good. People respect you. Just do it.’ And so I did it with the idea that she would watch the video and I would watch and my mother-in-law would watch and that would kind of be it. I never imagined anything would come of it at all.” To make that video experiment a reality, David needed to assemble a band of his own.
By reaching out to friends and colleagues, David connected with players in the area. Not only did he need musicians that could perform at a high level, but they also needed to be into games and on board with the idea of covering video game music. “There's a very small group of people: mariachis who can read music, play their instruments, and who like games. I think I have them all in my group right [now]. That's all of them.” The current lineup consists of Jesus "Chuy" Guerra (trumpet), D00MSDAY (vihuela, flute), Adrian The Mexican Viking (guitarrón), Gilberto Martinez (vihuela, guitar), Ms. Wednesday Urbano (flute), Lotus Blossom (violin), Roberto "Sabor" (violin), Eric "El Chicles" Cervera (violin), and Carlton Galvez (violin). Mariachi Entertainment System formed from this gathering of talent.
With the band behind him, choosing which songs to cover became the next step–a decision process David claimed to have a stranglehold over due to his limits as an arranger. “I'm not a very good arranger, despite what people might think.” Ortiz admitted. “If I can do it well where I feel confident, then we'll do it. And if it's a great song [and] I'm just that ambitious, we'll put it on the table for a while and kind of wait. But basically it's just like a matter of like what can work well right now. If I hear it and it sounds like we could, then we'll do it. But otherwise, I'm always really scared. I'm always terrified.”
Tackling beloved video game tracks like Ocarina of Time’s Gerudo Valley or Castlevania II’s Bloody Tears can be a nerve-wracking undertaking. If an arranger deviates too much, people may be turned off completely, but take it too safe and some will complain that it was too straight a rendition. David made this clear saying, “there's a very fine line there. God only knows where it is. I don't.”
Mariachi Entertainment System primarily covers 8/16-bit tunes due to the artistic challenge of working with limited yet melodic sounds. “We're not going to end up going too modern just because the more modern soundtracks have gotten a little ambient” Ortiz explained. “They can have a whole 100-piece orchestra in their soundtracks in video games these days. And that kind of freedom I think is counter-productive to the creative process.” While that may sound like a criticism, David very much enjoys the sounds of contemporary games. “I love the modern video game soundtracks.” Ortiz clarified. “I love The Last of Us. Great music. Gustavo Santoalalla - beautiful composer. I couldn't hum to you most of that soundtrack. I can't remember it off [my head], but that's not to say it isn't good. It's just… it's ambient. It's just different.”
SUCCESS AND THE FUTURE
Mariachi Entertainment System has achieved success and recognition from not only gamers, but a few developers as well. David remembered how Konami once praised the group’s rendition of Castlevania’s classic Bloody Tears on their official Facebook page. Now that MES has begun to attract the attention of developers, David hopes to expand the band’s reach by working with the very creators of the games he loves. “I'm a case manager by day, and I'm now I'm thinking like, well wait a minute, why don't I talk to some of the indie developers here in San Antonio? Let me see if they'll let me do a soundtrack! You know? We could work together. So now I'm thinking hey, this is something cool I'd like to work on.”
In terms of future soundtracks to cover, David singled out one game he’d like to tackle. “I'd love to cover Undertale. I'm pretty sure Toby Fox- I could reach out to him and it would be cool.”
When MES first began, David paid his players out of pocket. He later turned to crowdfunding platform Patreon to secure additional funding from his audience. David said he believes crowdfunding helped give the band the financial jumpstart needed to get the wheels turning. “Now that we have kind of a little enterprise, we're putting that money into making records and buying and selling merch and getting better equipment and things like that. So it has helped us to evolve.”
Currently, MES is recording their second album, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. David remains grateful for the support that crowdfunding has given the band and tries to do right by his audience. “We try to treat our fans very well and give them all the resources that we can and give them free stuff. It’s cool.”
Mariachi Entertainment System has several projects on the horizon. Ranking high among those goals is one particular song David said he hopes to cover one day, but only once he possesses the skills necessary to do the track justice. The reason for his apprehension? It’s David’s favorite piece of video game music of all time.
“Chrono Trigger, Secret of the Forest. The most glorious, beautiful video game tune ever written” Ortiz gushed. “That's my white whale. One day when I'm old and grey and other old and grey people are watching YouTube like "Oh, what are the Mariachis up to?" We're going to do it when I'm a master finally.”
To hear music from Mariachi Entertainment System, check out the band's YouTube channel.