In Mexican culture, death is not feared, but celebrated and embraced as a necessary part of life. Once a year, as the Aztec myth goes, the souls of the dead come back on Dia de los Muertos to visit their living families and friends, who in turn make shrines as a tribute to the dead. (You know, like that parade full of face-painted freaks on Fourth Avenue.) We were given a second chance last Saturday at Rialto Theatre to pay tribute to one young musician, Ariel Cramer, who quietly passed away last spring.
Ariel Cramer, or El Cramer, as he was nicknamed, played the vihuela guitar in Mariachi Luz de Luna and by all accounts was a go-to comic-relief guy who kept the mood light during Calexico's lengthy European tours. El Cramer died last May at 29 of a brain aneurysm, leaving behind a newborn daughter and missing his son's birth by two months. Calexico organized this show as a benefit for his family, bringing together a host of special guests.
Luca began the night with a brief set that was jazzier and more jovial than usual, with help from members of Calexico and a four-piece horn section. Luca was followed by Mariachi Aztlan de Pueblo High, led by Luz de Luna's John Contreras, who also teaches music at Pueblo. Cramer was one of the first students in this program, graduating as a full-time member of Luz de Luna. Aztlan played traditional mariachi songs with an extra kick and bounce, reflecting their youthful exuberance. They could easily hold their own with any national touring mariachis.
Calexico played a typical set full of upbeat fan favorites with the help of a few Luz de Luna members and guest appearances from locals Salvador Duran on "Roka" and Marianne Dissard, who dueted on "Ballad of Cable Hogue." Luz de Luna followed the set with their full band, featuring the crowd-pleasing "Aires del Mayab," sung by the amazing Lulu Olivares. (Linda Ronstadt who?)
The highlight of the evening was the "Crystal Frontier" finale, featuring all the musicians from the night, including both mariachi troops; everyone could barely fit on one stage. As musicians of all ages were taking their bows, and Cramer's daughter was held above, we were once again reminded how death is part of the cycle of life, and we were watching the next generation of local musicians grow right before our eyes.