Bygone elegance recaptured
The music of bandleader Chapito Chavarria created magic and memories worth hearing and preserving
By Paige Martínez
I joke that I first heard the music of Chapito Chavarria in my mother’s womb. My great-uncle Paul (who was married to my Nana’s sister) and his younger brother Rafael (nicknamed “Chapito”) played guitar and bass at our family Easter picnics at Papago Park every year while we kids chased roadrunners and the adults had a party. Chapito’s cumbias and romantic bolero arrangements were intrinsic to the world in which I was raised.
I didn’t understand the significance of his music to the larger community until 1990. After finishing film school at New York University, I was working on a documentary for The American Experience called Los Mineros, about Mexican American copper miners and their fight for equal wages (until 1946 they received only half the wages of non-Mexicans). My job was to find the story, the visuals and the witnesses. On this quest, I visited mining town after mining town. In Jerome, I learned I might find a bunch of “old-timers” at a dance being held in the local high school gymnasium. I opened the door of the makeshift dance hall to a beautiful, familiar sound. It was the cumbia “Botones,” made famous by Sonora Santanera. This was followed by a polka and then a bolero by Agustín Lara. A hundred or so couples, mostly viejitos, worked their way around the perimeter of the dance floor. Their distinctly different dancing styles produced a dazzling, kaleidoscopic effect, transforming the humble gymnasium into a glamorous salon de baile with an atmosphere that was puro romántico.
Feet and elbows moved to the rhythm, men’s chins pressed against ladies’ cheeks as couples of varying shapes and sizes gripped each other tightly. Other couples danced at arms length, yet their easy, synchronized movements hinted at a delicate intimacy. The music filled me with the treasured feeling of being at home, in my community, certain of my identity. That feeling of being at my Nana’s house: her comida; the sound of the rolling pin hitting the counter as she made tortillas; teaching me it was time to flip them when they made air bubbles on the hot comal; the comfort of knowing how to behave and of knowing where everything belongs.
Content and self-assured, I made my way to the bandstand where I saw a familiar face. It was Chapito Chavarria playing an electric bass behind a hand-lettered sign that read: “The Chapito Chavarria Orchestra.” That was twenty-three years ago when Chapito was a sturdy 76-year-old man. In April, 2014, he will celebrate turning 100.
In Jerome that day, I realized that many Chicanos in central Arizona feel as I do about Chapito – that his unique style of music belongs to us; it’s an essential part of our cultura and comunidad.
Late in 2012, I began working on a documentary about Chapito. With the help of his daughter, Barbara, I was able to visit him and his wife, Consuelo, at their home at the Phoenix Manor. They had lived for nearly half a century in a large house in Chula Vista but, after Chapito turned 88 (over a decade ago), they downsized.
This spring, just before his 99th birthday, I spent days with Chapito listening to stories about his early life in English and Spanish. Born in Solomonville, Arizona, in 1914, Chapito lost his mother to breast cancer when he was seven years old. His father, Pablo, a musician whose group played the mining towns of Clifton-Morenci and other localities nearby, sold off his farm, piece by piece, in an effort to raise money for doctors to save her life. It didn’t work. After her death in 1923, Pablo brought his children to Tempe where they had extended family for support, and took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. By the age of nine, Chapito was playing in his father’s group at weddings, La Casa Vieja restaurant and at Sunday tardeadas near Sotelo Ranch in Tempe.
Chapito told me fascinating stories about his childhood in the 1920s. As a boy, during a music break, he accidentally witnessed a murder outside a dance; at fourteen (a time, he says, weddings lasted twelve hours or more), he and his father’s group were forced to play extended sets at gunpoint; and the funniest story (considering that Chapito’s original arrangements include paso doble, waltz, polka, ranchera, cumbia, bolero, cha-cha, merengue, rumba, mambo, danzón, guaracha, swing and marches) was that, at the very first wedding he played as a small boy, he and his brother (my uncle Paul) only knew four songs between them, which they played over and over again several hours straight. “The people didn’t mind. They just kept on dancing.”
Sitting at Chapito’s kitchen table, I heard hilarious stories about his service in World War II. He did not receive his military classification of private first class until the was on the ship heading for Tinian Island because his commander didn’t like the way he was always being called away for Big Band duty. “We were on a 10-mile march in the rain and I was soaking wet with a rifle over my head when a jeep pulled up, skidded to a stop, and a captain jumped out and ordered my drill sergeant to release me: ‘Chavarria needed at the officer’s club for band duty.’ The drill sergeant was furious because I was always being called away for band duty.” I also heard wrenching details of Chapito facing blatant discrimination while he was in the service and the cathartic relief of his response to it. Story after story, I was on the edge of my seat, having a great time.