Master Musician Relishing Opportunity to Appear in Annual LA County Holiday Program

Photo / Julie Rodriguez

Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar and Folklorico de Los Angeles are making their first appearances in the annual LA County Holiday Celebration show that will air on Christmas Eve.

When Jimmy Cuéllar learned his performing group Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar had been selected to perform at this year’s LA County Holiday Celebration, he was quite pleased at having achieved a long time, personal goal.

Not that the multi-instrumentalist and a Grammy winner necessarily needed an appearance at the annual holiday program on his resume. As a master musician, Cuéllar has played at many venues around the globe as a member of groups and as the leader of his own.

But like many performing artists in 2020,  Mariachi Garibaldi’s touring schedule had been wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Gone were many of the scheduled dates in Orange County, Chico in Northern California, Arizona and Utah. So any opportunity to perform is welcomed.

“We’ve been sitting at home much of the time, wondering if we were going to perform this year,” Cuéllar said. “We saw they were taking applicants for the show, my wife said, ‘I’m going to apply,’ and they accepted us. 

“We had been excited going into 2020 with [the touring schedule] we had lined up. And then COVID-19 happened. In the beginning we all had the notion it was gonna be a two-week thing. Now we’re going on seven months. To have a full-blown performance now is exciting for us because of the amount of people who usually watch it.”

The three-hour showcase, hosted this year by East Los Angeles mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán and actor/producer Brian White, is scheduled to air on PBS SoCal, starting at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. It will simultaneously stream on pbssocal.org/holidaycelebration, kcet.org and Holidaycelebration.org.

An encore of the show will be aired on PBS SoCal that evening at 7 p.m. KCET will rebroadcast the show on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, at noon. Mariachi Garibaldi is performing a dance-and-music collaboration with Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles. They are among the 22 performing artists giving their time to bring some holiday cheer.

Mariachi Garibaldi was formed in 1994 in Bakersfield by Cuéllar’s father Jaime, a trumpet player. Cuéllar immersed himself in the music there, and became good enough to join the Los Angeles-based Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano for over ten years. He was also an instructor at the Master Mariachi Apprentice Program (MMAP) at San Fernando High School for five years, the award winning, nationally recognized program that began in the City of San Fernando as the brainchild of cultural affairs director Virginia Diediker and Cano, the founder of Mariachi Los Camperos. 

When he took over as director of his father’s group, Cuéllar relocated them from Bakersfield to Los Angeles in 2012. He left MMAP as a full-time instructor in 2015 to establish his own arts school in Montebello.

“If you’re a musician you should be in a big city,” he said.

The county holiday program — now in its 61st year — is usually broadcast live and performed before an audience of Angelenos on Christmas Eve. This year, however, the program is being pre-recorded without an audience, filmed at locations like the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Jerry Moss Plaza, and other sites around the county.

Cuéllar said their performance was filmed on Sunday, Nov. 15, outside of the downtown Chandler Pavilion on two stages, one for the dancers and the other for the musicians and singers.

“It was different with no audience,” he said. “You finish your song and you’re used to hearing a roar from the crowd. But we finished and had to stay silent until someone yelled, ‘Clear!’ And then you could breathe.”

And performing with Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles made it even more special, Cuéllar said. His wife, Kareli Montoya, founded the company in 2011 and is the director. It was also Ballet Folklorico’s first appearance in the holiday program.

“She grew up in Los Angeles and grew up watching [the holiday show],” Cuéllar said of Montoya. “Growing up in Bakersfield, I didn’t know much about it until I moved out to Los Angeles in 2004. I thought it was a great thing, and wanted to be a part of it.

“For the dancers and musicians, it’s just such an honor to be part of it with all that’s been going on. And if you love the dancing or the music, you’ll get the best of both worlds.”

He is grateful for the opportunity to play the music, which can form a strong, emotional connection with listeners.

“Mariachi and Folklorico is the folk music and dance of Mexico,” Jimmy Cuéllar said. “People tell us at our shows how much it hits home; they’ll tell me,’I love it when you played this song; it reminded me of every [house party] when my grandmother would get up and dance to it. Thank you for bringing back that memory.’

“It’s amazing, in general, how music can do that.” 

Along with Mariachi Garibaldi and Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles, other scheduled performers include the Latin folk band Cuñao, a Hawaiian celebration featuring Daniel Ho Trio and Hālau Keali’i o Nālani with special guest Tia Carrere, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy, folklorico troupe Pacifico Dance Company, Gospel choir Praizum led by Lorenzo Johnson and Infinite Flow-An Inclusive Dance Company, a professional company of dancers with and without disabilities that uses dance as a catalyst to inspire inclusivity and innovation.

Also performing is an ensemble from the American Youth Symphony, the French-Chinese chanteuse Jessica Fichot, the barbershop quartet Noteable (cq), and country-music trio Sean Oliu and The Coastline Cowboys.

The show’s traditional finale, “Silent Night,” will be a virtual collaborative performance featuring Southern California Brass Consortium with a community choir featuring many singers from this year’s roster of performers.

Like other fans of the annual program, Cuéllar plans to be watching on Christmas Eve.

“They [filmed their segment] right when the sun was coming down; it’s gonna look great,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re gonna come out on the lineup — there’s a lot of great music — but I hope people enjoy it, and want to get up and dance and sing along with us.”

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