On Monday and Wednesday evenings in East Harlem the sounds inside of St. Paul’s School on E. 118th St are pretty much the same as those during a regular school day: the dragging of chairs on linoleum, the chatter and laughter of children, bags dropped on floors and pushed to the side. The difference is that on these evenings, those sounds slowly give way to guitars tuning, to trumpets playing scales, and violins arpeggiating chords. And above the din, the voices of Ramon Poncé, Jr. and his family and friends, leading the young musicians on.
Poncé is a Mariachi, like his father before him. A proud Mexican tradition, mariachi music—traditionally performed by an ensemble with a range of instruments including trumpets, guitars, violins, vocals, and the traditional vihuela and guitarrón––is the folk music that has become synonymous with an entire culture, passed down by families like the Poncés. Their band, Mariachi Réal de Mexíco, is far better known than most, having performed on The Daily Show and in commercials for Nokia.
But to the Poncés, mariachi is more than just music. To that end, Ramon and his father started the Mariachi Academy of New York to teach children about the tradition here in New York City. But they’re not just imparting a sense of cultural pride. When asked not only why he teaches, but why he plays, Ramon Poncé, Sr., told a story about a young man in Long Island who was in love with a woman whose parents did not want to meet him. After receiving his phone call, Poncé agreed to go out with the man and small ensemble to perform for the woman’s parents. The next day, Poncé got a different call––this time from the young woman’s parents, expressing gratitude––their music had inspired a change of heart. “Musicó es la medicina del alma”, Poncé said, “y somos los medicos.”
“Music is the medicine of the soul, and we are the doctors”.