Pancho Villa's Skull is right here in Michigan. No, it's not the missing bones of the Mexican Revolution general, but the stage name of Tino Ybarra, a musician who brings a punk rock sensibility to a traditional Mexican musical style.
Ybarra grew up in Pontiac, Mich. and learned his chops playing in punk and ska bands like Rebels Amongst Rebels and Take A Hint before creating his own special blend of punk-infused mariachi.
HuffPost spoke with him in anticipation of this weekend's Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Southwest Detroit, which will feature more traditional mariachi performers. Keep reading for Ybarra's insight into the mariachi musical tradition, punk rock, immigrant rights and the Americanization of Cinco de Mayo, a holiday commemorating the Mexican army's surprising victory over French forces during the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
What can you tell us about the origins of mariachi music?
It's hard to peg down mariachi. I believe it started in [the state of] Jalisco in [the city of] Guadalajara, Mexico. But there's a lot of different forms of mariachi. Mariachis are known for playing different styles, so it's kind of a broad term. I picked it up from my grandfather. He was a mariachi trumpet player. That's how I came to it.
Could you describe the makeup of a mariachi band?
It can be done solo, someone with a guitar. It can also be done with a bigger band like trumpets, violins. There's an instrument called a vihuela, which is like a ukelele but a Mexican version of it. There are a lot of different instruments that can be put into a mariachi, some mariachi bands have drummers, accordians, it really depends on the mariachi group and what they want. Harps, some bands have really big harps. It just depends.
Traditionally, where do mariachi bands play?
Weddings, quinceañeras [a girl's 15th birthday party], anywhere. Anywhere you can get a gig mostly. I've seen just random parties people had with mariachis. Anytime someone wants a mariachi, they can pretty much find one.
Your bio says you've spent some time in Mexico. How does the music differ from the U.S.?
I've never actually lived in Mexico. When I was a kid my grandpa would take us over the border all the time, so I spent a lot of time there. In Mexico there are a lot of street musicians pretty much all over the place. They play the traditional mariachi music all over the place, maybe that's the biggest difference.
How did you start playing your own blend of mariachi and punk?
My last band was a ska band [called Take a Hint], and that was actually the first time I tried to write lyrics in Spanish. I've played in a couple different punk rock bands. I kind of grew up on punk rock, and as I got older I started delving back into music that I listened to as kid, mariachi music. I was inspired by bands like Flogging Molly or Gogol Bordello that take music from their heritage and mix it with punk rock.
I thought, "Well I guess I can mix that with mariachi music, nobody's done that yet." So I started to write lyrics in Spanish and English and mix it in my own way, so that it became this whole mariachi punk rock thing.
How did you come up with the name?
I wanted something that people would know what they're getting when they heard the name. Pancho Villa's Skull kind of does that. I was looking for different names, bands, just scouring the internet [for] different revolutionaries. And Pancho Villa being one of the most famous, I was reading up on him a little bit. After he was killed his skull was stolen and I thought that would be a cool name. I kind of stole it from that.
You seem to be involved with politics as an artist. Are there any causes you are involved with?
Not specifically. I read the news a lot and write about things that make me angry. I think the politicalness comes from everyday life. I know a lot of immigrants and all my best friends come from different countries. Just seeing the things that are happening to immigrants are the kind of things I write about when it's a little more political. Also it's a lot of [the] stuff that's going on in Arizona and Alabama and my own personal experiences. I've been stopped at the border and made to get out of the car and asked if I was an American citizen. Stuff like that is what inspires me.
What do you think of the current immigrants rights struggle in the U.S.?
I don't want to comment on it too much. I mean, I was born here luckily enough, but I don't really have to go through all those things. I think both sides kind of get it wrong. It's not really about illegal immigration, or anything like that. It's more about reform. I mean our immigration policy isn't up to date. It's not where it needs to be. It's not where it can function with the influx of immigrants that are coming. And so that's why a lot of things are happening. And a lot of people don't realize that. Me, commenting on it, I'm not really an immigrant so I don't always feel like it's my place to say.
Do you have any thought on Cinco de Mayo as it is practiced in the U.S.?
It's such an interesting holiday because actually, you know, it's not a big deal in Mexico. From what I hear is that after [part of] Mexico had become part of the U.S., a lot of the Mexicans wanted something to maintain their identity. So they took the Cinco de Mayo celebration that wasn't a big deal in Mexico and made it their own. And then it kind of went out for a while, and then in the '60s you have Mexican-American activists [who] wanted something to celebrate their culture and their heritage. And then it was taken over again as just another excuse to party.
Myself, [I think] it's a cool day being Mexican. You see all the things on TV or anything where people are explaining Mexican heritage, but then there's the whole sombrero wearing, fake moustache thing. It gets under your skin a little bit. I'm 100% Mexican, and I can't grow a mustache. I think it's a false stereotype.
Where can people see you perform?
The Trumbullplex [in Detroit] is probably where I've played the most. I've played at the Blind Pig [in Ann Arbor]. I've played smaller venues in Royal Oak. I play anywhere I can get a gig. I'd play at your mother's birthday party if you want me to. I'll play anywhere.
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