Hanging out on the Fiesta flatlands of State Street last weekend, it could seem that an unofficial mariachi festival was unfolding. But Saturday night brought this great American music in a fuller, high-end form with the 24th annual Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival at the Santa Barbara Bowl. This year’s affair featured the polished sounds of Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, Mariachi Aztlán, and Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, joined by bold-piped singers Shaila Dúrcal, the striking 15-year-old Ángela Aguilar (daughter of Pepe Aguilar) and seasoned heroine/ranchera queen Aida Cuevas.
This festival was sold out, with proceeds funding scholarships for area Hispanic youths. Though timed during Old Spanish Days, the festival is really more about Old Mexico — mariachi is a rich and evolving musical tradition with roots in 19th-century Jalisco, and a robust, always sharply dressed modern-day culture. Deep respect for tradition is the norm, but there can be occasional detours, as with Aguilar’s periodic “pop-iachi” moves, a surprise heavy-metal moment in the Mariachi Aztlán set, with an electric guitarist wailer making a cameo, and Latin jazz asides in the Cuevas/Garibaldi set.
Among the newer developments in the genre is the matter of gender rejiggering. At Saturday’s festival, the all-female (and all-powerful) Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea were on hand, and the other bands at least included a few women in the ranks. And it was a woman who left the most lingering memory: Cuevas doled out hits, sang a semi-posthumous duet with late ally Juan Gabriel (d. 2016), who sang his part via pre-recorded video, and generally owned the Bowl for a night. Her set was a little Fiesta of her own devising.