Jarabe Mexicano: Troubadours and teachers come to Minnesota

The five-piece band will perform and educate audiences about border culture and music

 Jarabe Mexicano
Members of the band Jarabe Mexicano. From left: Kevin Lomes, vihuela, vocals, educational presenter; Esteban "Steve" Smith, lead guitar and educational presenter; Gustavo "Tavo" Alcoser Jr., lead vocalist, managing director and educational outreach coordinator; Eduardo "Eddy" Valencia, guitarron, vocals and educational presenter; and Daniel "Danny" Brito, percussion, artistic director and educational outreach coordinator.
Courtesy of Jarabe Mexicano

Jarabe Mexicano sees itself as more than just a band. 

They use their music as an educational tool for audiences who may not be familiar with the Spanish songs they sing and the instruments they play.

“It's not just going on a stage and singing and dancing and playing. It's telling them musically and historically what this is about,” said lead vocalist Tavo Alcoser Jr.

Jarabe Mexicano will be in residency at Augsburg University. In addition to working with music department students, they will also have a clinic at St. Paul Central High School. On Saturday, April 2, they will perform a free public concert at Hoversten Chapel on the Augsburg campus beginning at 2 p.m.

The band loves to promote music education, said Danny Brito, percussionist and artistic director for the group.

“That’s our thing. That’s what we love to do. We go from playing music for the kids to telling them stories about growing up on the border,” Brito said.

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Augsburg University has been working to expand its curriculum beyond western European classical music. It is constantly seeking to expand students’ appreciation of diverse music, said David Myers, head of music studies at Augsburg. Jarabe Mexicano’s music and sound fits into that vision.

“We would like them (students) to be familiar with the sound; why the sound is what it is; how it reflects social aspects and cultural aspects of border populations,” Myers said.

The band formed when Alcoser was at San Diego State University. All five members have connections to the border – whether it’s San Diego or Nogales, Arizona. But members have come and gone during the past eight years. 

Jarabe Mexicano’s sound doesn’t fit into one specific genre. They have a versatile list of songs that span the musical spectrum from Mexican folk to rock and roll to Latin rock. They’ve been influenced by different sounds from Ritchie Valens to Los Lobos and Chicano rock. That comes across in their setlist of covers like “Lamento Boliviano,” “La Malagueña” and “Besame Morenita.”

The best phrase to describe their sound is “bordeño-soul-folk,” Brito said.

“That word didn’t (just) come about. It’s taken years for us to come to that point. It’s a hybrid sound. It’s Mexican; it’s Mexican-American,” Brito said.

“You have these rock bands that would bring in folk music and folk influences from around Latin America into the sound, and it really made a unique sound. We’re playing off that. We’ve been influenced by that,” Alcoser said.

When it comes to the songs, Brito said it’s about making them their own. But it’s also about adapting the songs to the instruments the group has.

“One of the things I learned is whatever you have at hand, make something with that. Don’t try to go too far out to get something,” he said.

Each band member has their own interest when it comes to music, and that has a huge effect on the band’s sound, Alcoser said. For example, they had one member who was into hip hop, reggae and Freddy Fender. Current member Kevin Lomes is a classically trained bass baritone, and they let that shine and come through in the songs he sings.

“Ultimately, I think that’s really what contributed to the sound, or making something sound like us,” Alcoser said.

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.