Behind mariachis there's a mentor

Mirthful, tireless David Membrila ignites a love of the music in many Tucson youths
2013-06-16T00:00:00Z Behind mariachis there's a mentorKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

David Membrila can't escape mariachi music.

It's with him at work, where he teaches music at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School. It's with him in the evenings when he leads classes at Viva Performing Arts Center. And it's always on in the car, when his kids commandeer the stereo.

"Their musical choice is mariachi," says Membrila, 54. "They play my mariachi CDs so much, I'm starting to hate mariachi music."

It's his own fault, of course. He started it.

Membrila, a Tucson native who grew up on the south side, has created mariachi programs or taught it all over town. Most recently, he became Viva's mariachi director, relaunching the program that had stopped nearly 10 years ago. When Viva's owner, Julie Gallego, decided to revive mariachi, the longtime educator jumped at the opportunity.

"When schools are eliminating art, music, dance, Viva is continuing to bring those to the forefront," says Membrila, who also sells real estate.

He drafted his kids Carmen, 10, and Liam, 13, to be his assistants for the introductory class.

The Membrila family has a long history with Viva. Oldest daughter Jasmine, 20, started taking classes when she was young. As soon as Carmen turned 4, his wife, Bertha Garcia Membrila, enrolled her at Viva, too. Soon, Liam wanted to dance. The two study folklórico and hip hop in addition to mariachi.

Their gift of movement comes courtesy of their mother, Membrila says. "She was a stripper," he jokes.

Did we mention he's also a stand-up comic?

No, the truth is Garcia Membrila danced jazz. Membrila - kinda sorta - takes credit for his kids' blossoming musical talent.

"I'm not the greatest musician," he says, "but I'm confident of my teaching."

Gallego says Membrila really knows how to engage his charges.

"I love to see the way David interacts with the students," she says. "He makes it so fun for them even though he's very strict. He's always joking."

Membrila's passion for music grew while he was in high school but his isn't a natural talent, he says. He's always had to work at it. He sounds every bit the proud papa as he talks about how his kids are excelling.

"It's a natural talent for him," he says of Liam. "He's pretty darn good, and he doesn't have time for practice."

Carmen, on the other hand, is very studious and a good teacher, Membrila reports. Both kids play several instruments. In fact, Membrila just bought Liam his own guitarrón.

"I've already told him he could have my instruments when I die," he says. "Lately, I'm afraid to start tasting my own food."

Membrila says that as a father, it's great to see his kids appreciating the music he loves.

"We discuss the instrumentation of songs we're hearing, patterns, lyrics and translations, the symbolism of songs themselves," Membrila says. "Mariachi is very beautiful in terms of poetry, lyrics. Now they're becoming students of mariachi, asking about different artists, groups. My son drives me crazy, and he does it on purpose - we'll listen to a song and he'll say, 'How far are we from this song?' We're just starting out! I'll say, 'Years.' But he's excited about mariachi."

It goes without saying, so is Membrila.

"I'll be at the studio for as long as I can help the kids there," he says of his work at Viva. "I'm hoping that I can turn the program over to my kids or to the kids I've taught at the studio. There are so many phenomenal mariachi players in town. I'm not even at the bottom. I'm just great at starting fires."

Debut for Mariachi Chispa de Tucson

The Mariachi Chispa de Tucson, Viva Performing Arts Center's mariachi group, will hold its first public performance at 4:30 p.m. June 23. The group will play in the lobby before Viva's recital at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., on the University of Arizona campus. Admission is free. Call 544-9543 for more details.

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194.

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