The house band at Casa Sanchez puts a modern spin on musical tradition
By Evan Henerson
Finding a solid mariachi band in this town isn’t like splitting the atom. Festivals, parties, community events and certainly upper-end Mexican restaurants offer a fair share of brightly costumed musicians bearing horns, violins and guitars.
But how do you know the musicians you’re checking out are worth their cielito lindo?
Devotee Edgar Rivera has taken in mariachi performances all over the city and beyond, from East L.A. to the San Fernando Valley to his native Guadalajara. By now he knows quality and, to Rivera, the evaluation isn’t difficult.
“When the people that are listening to it are really staring at [the musicians], instead of eating or drinking. They’re paying attention to what they’re listening to, that’s how I can tell,” Rivera said. “When they catch my attention, and
I just listen.”
His attention was caught and held on a recent Sunday evening at Casa Sanchez Mexican Restaurant.
Rivera and his wife Betsy celebrated their twelfth wedding anniversary over dinner and a set by Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez, the restaurant’s house band.
“They performed ‘Guadalajara,’ and that’s a classic mariachi piece,” Rivera said. “I had my in-laws from Mexico on Skype watching too, and they enjoyed it. They said it was good, so I can say it’s good.”
This was Rivera’s first time hearing the band — he and Betsy had Googled mariachi and ended up on Centinela Avenue in Del Rey — but for Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez, such praise is anything but unusual.
Now in their ninth year as the Casa Sanchez house band, Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez is regularly hired out for festival gigs (including this year’s Fiesta La Ballona) in addition to their 11 weekly shows at the restaurant Thursdays through Sundays.
Part of the magic is keeping a time-honored tradition feeling fresh.
“They’re not a typical mariachi band. They sing in different languages, and they’re always trying new things,” said Irma Sanchez, the band’s booking agent and assistant manager. “I guess you could say that they’re very modern with a touch of the old tradition.”
Indeed, it’s not every mariachi band that can throw in mariachi versions of tunes by Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra or Frankie Valli. Members boast that no two shows are the same, that each performance takes on its own dynamic. And requests? Bring ‘em on.
Julian Torres, the band’s lead singer and one of its trumpet players, has musical roots in traditional mariachi, but he has also sung jazz and R&B. Through his gigs with Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez, Torres finds plenty of opportunity for fusing various musical genres — a practice that he contends is part of mariachi’s evolution.
“It’s all about the music, and we want to show you that, yes, we’re Mexican, and, yes, we are immigrants, but we could give something here,” Torres said. “There’s a whole revolution, mariachi music-wise, as to the younger kids. I really see the fusing of music. If you want to play Beatles, yes, we can play the Beatles.”
Over the years, Casa Sanchez’s proximity to LAX has brought visitors from around the world to Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez. The band’s repertoire, says Torres, includes numbers for “our Brazilian friends,” “our French friends” — you name it. A 2015 Yelp review from Veronica S. of Misawa, Japan, proclaimed the band “Stunning and breathtaking!”
Before coming together to form the current ensemble, many of the band members had played with well-known area mariachi bands such as Mariachi sol de Mexico and Mariachi los Camperos.
Raul Sanchez, the restaurant owner for whom the band is named, isn’t a musician but he hand-picked some of the original members to set the initial direction of the band. The current lineup came together when the band’s former music director started reaching out to experienced mariachi musicians to gauge their interest in forming a steady house band.
“He wanted to have good chemistry in the group,” said Torres. “Most of the songs in mariachi are standards. When you have a restaurant or a stable group, then you can start putting arrangements to standards or to newer music. We all have tons of experience. Whatever song they ask for, we’re able to play it.”
“We are like a family,” added Filiberto Ramirez, the band’s bass guitar player. “We spend a lot of time together, sometimes more than with our families.”
That first Sunday night set on Rivera’s anniversary included folklorico dancers and featured many of the standards mixed with some wild cards. Torres, Ramirez and their bandmates ripped through “Malagueña,” “Ojos Espandos,” “Jarabe Tapatio” and “El Milagro de Tus Ojos” — many of the songs capped off with a boisterous shout of “Si, senor!”
Also on the set list: “Besa me Mucho,” a polka number, the Javier Solis song “Payaso” and the standard “El Niño Perdido.” The latter two were requests from brother and sister Angel and Angelica Lopez, who were celebrating Angelica’s birthday with their families.
Like the Riveras, the Lopez family were Casa Sanchez first timers who has sought out mariachi to celebrate a festive occasion. Upon arriving, Angelica Lopez discovered that one of the entertainers — Torres — was a former high school classmate.
“’Payaso’” was our dad’s favorite song, and he’s no longer with us It’s about being happy at the same time as suffering internally,” she said. “‘El Nino Perdito’ was the first song my brother and I used to dance to when we were really young. It’s all instrumental, but we think it’s about a child gone missing from his parent. It’s the first song we used to get down to. Both of those songs are really powerful [for the people] at this table.”
Those kinds of personalized requests are always welcome, say the musicians of Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez.
As Torres tells it, the vibe of the crowd can shift depending on the hour.
First shows of the evening typically draw family crowds and area locals, which means the music doesn’t get too loud.
By the second show, the band fields a lot of requests for standards.
On Fridays and Saturdays, when the band takes the stage for their 10:45 p.m. set, the booze is flowing and nobody is worried about toning down the volume.
“Most of the people who come here are very focused and know that it’s a dinner show,” Torres said. “But this whole technology thing — we’ve seen people on their phone, not paying attention or people not really understanding the concept of dinner show. We’ve encountered things where people are right in the middle and they’re talking out loud or just screaming out at us like they’re in
a cantina somewhere.
“But when there’s a crowd that is really into it, or some people come in that we know, or we see musicians that come in, you feel that adrenaline rush and really enjoy it even more,” he said. “It’s an art, and we are giving the best kind of art that we can show.”
Mariachi Voces de Mexico de Raul Sanchez performs two shows on Thursday evenings and three shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at Casa Sanchez Mexican Restaurant, 4500 S. Centinela Ave., Del Rey. To make reservations, call (310) 397-9999 or visit casa-sanchez.com.