First Person Singular: Dan Sheehy

First Person Singular
(Benjamin C. Tankersley)
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

It usually happens when we take a break from playing: Someone will come up to me and say, "You don't look Mexican." That reaction has really made me think about how certain kinds of music are perceived as belonging to one culture. You know, Yo-Yo Ma plays Mozart, but no one ever comes up to Yo-Yo Ma and says, "You don't look Austrian."

In college, I was playing in a rhythm-and-blues band based out of Compton. That was a real experience. We were playing James Brown, Sam and Dave, and I was just part of the group. Those were the days of the Black Panthers, so sometimes, like when I'd step outside on a break, I couldn't ignore it: I was the only white person there. But being a minority, for a kid who grew up in Bakersfield, California, that was mind-opening. I wanted more.

When that group broke up, a friend asked me to be in a mariachi band. I said sure, even though I really had no idea what it was. There was a [mariachi] class at UCLA. The teacher had grown up in this small town and had played in some of the greatest mariachi groups in Mexico. Then he came to the states. A graduate student found him picking strawberries in Oxnard. He was a man of enormous dignity and [had a] real depth of musical knowledge. He taught a bunch of us gringos his passion. I just fell in love with it.

I love the mariachi because you can't ignore it. It's in your face, saying, Pay attention to me. It reaches out and embraces everyone. We've played in Ted Kennedy's house and at the opening of an Asian grocery store in Maryland -- they have a lot of Latino customers -- where they had us walk down the aisles. There's a different kind of pressure there at those backyard barbecues. These people know, like, 2,000 songs, and they'll shout them all out and sing along with every word -- if you can keep up. You don't want to let them down.

I met my wife while I was playing. She was a dancer, and there weren't many Mexican folk dancers and mariachi bands in Northern Virginia in the '80s, so we're bound to see one another. I don't know what she saw in this shy trumpet player. It must have been those black velvet pants.

Interview by Amanda Long

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