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College Podcast Challenge: A student in Michigan found comfort in mariachi after loss

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When his uncle died last year, Jose Miguel Llanas found comfort and solace in music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: ...Mariachi music, the Mexican folk tradition that has made its way to Southwest Detroit and to Llanas. His uncle was a musician buried in his traje, the traditional mariachi suit. Llanas says the music brought back powerful memories of his uncle and grandparents and helped him deal with the loss.

He recently graduated from Wayne State University, where he made a podcast about mariachi music for part of his senior project. He submitted it to NPR's College Podcast Challenge. Jose Miguel Llanas sat down with musician Juan Romero after the singer and his Detroit group, Mariachi Mexico 2000, performed at a local restaurant. Here's part of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN ROMERO: Mariachi - my family's Mariachi already, all their lives, so...

JOSE MIGUEL LLANAS: For years, years, so it's like a generational...

ROMERO: Yeah.

LLANAS: OK, that's amazing. So that went all the way from, like, great-great-grandparents.

ROMERO: Yes. Yes.

LLANAS: Oh, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIACHI MEXICO 2000: (Singing in non-English language).

LLANAS: So you have an amazing voice.

ROMERO: Thank you.

LLANAS: You have it a beautiful voice.

ROMERO: Gracias.

LLANAS: I was just wondering if you had, like, any kind of, like, formal training, any lessons at all. Like you said, like, a relative, like, wanted you to come here and sing some songs, and, like, you had no idea how to sing. But how did that talent come to you?

ROMERO: Do you know what? When I was living in Mexico, I watched my parents, my dad, my grandparents. Singing, to me, was just like - it just came out like that. You know what I mean?

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: I didn't have no...

LLANAS: Training.

ROMERO: No training.

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: I didn't go to school for singing or nothing. It just - natural.

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: You know, I think it's a - God's gift. You know what I mean?

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: God's given you a gift.

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: You know, and I think that's what it was.

LLANAS: OK. OK. Do you ever feel like the work becomes, like, a chore? Like, is it something like, ah, man, I got to go sing at this quinceanera? Does it ever feel like that?

ROMERO: Well, see, I work, like, you know, basic construction work. And there's times - not all the time. I'll be honest. There's - not all the time, but there's times when I'm like, oh, I got to go - I got to go play two tequila restaurants today. It's Friday.

LLANAS: Yeah, yeah.

ROMERO: But as soon as I took a shower, as soon as I put my outfit on, and just, like, it's like, I'm ready to go.

LLANAS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROMERO: I'm ready. I just like - it's like the mariachi suit is like some type of vitamin in your body - because I put the suit, I feel different. I act different.

LLANAS: It's a cape. It's like a superhero cape...

ROMERO: Yes.

LLANAS: ...As far as I'm concerned.

ROMERO: Yes, it is. It is, really. And like I said, even if I'm so tired, oh, I'm tired...

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: As soon as I get to the gig, I look at the guys and say, hey, let's do it.

LLANAS: It's go time.

ROMERO: Boom.

LLANAS: That's awesome.

ROMERO: You know, it's just like everything change. The energy change, you know what I mean?

LLANAS: Recently, your group performed at my family member's funeral, and he was a mariachi musician. And he was buried in his traje. What do you think is the significance of the traje? And why do you think it was important for him to be buried in it?

ROMERO: Because that's basically what he is. Even though he worked in a factory for many, many years, he was a mariachi in his heart.

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: It's like a tradition. All of my friends that passed away, they go in a suit, mariachi suit. That's who they were. I think that mariachi music was the heart of them.

LLANAS: It means a lot to them, obviously...

ROMERO: Oh, yes.

LLANAS: It's something that they...

ROMERO: Yeah. It means a lot. Like, that's why he was buried with the suit. And not just him, all the mariachis that passed.

LLANAS: When you see that, does that - how does that make you feel, when you see somebody in a traje?

ROMERO: Oh, yeah. I don't - you know, I don't want to think, oh, that's going to be me next, you know what I mean?

LLANAS: Yeah.

ROMERO: I don't have that mentality. But all I see when I see - I saw a friend leaving to go to a better place, and I know we're all going to meet sometime again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LLANAS: Once again, that was my conversation with Juan Romero, sharing his experience of being a mariachi musician performing in Southwest Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIACHI MEXICO 2000: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: And that was Jose Miguel Llanas with his entry for NPR's College Podcast Challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIACHI MEXICO 2000: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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