California girl Cindy Shea can be called an honorary Latina. The blonde Irish-Italian calls herself a “gringa who can get by in Spanish,” she’s married to Mexican musician, Alberto Jimenez Maeda, and she lives and breathes mariachi.
She says when she was first introduced to traditional Mexican sounds at age 23, she knew she was never going back. In fact, only a year later, she formed her own all-female Grammy-winning mariachi band called Mariachi Divas. The group is now nominated in the category of Best Regional Mexican Music Album for their 8th album, “Oye,” in the upcoming Grammy Awards to be presented on Sunday.
“It’s really hard to get welcoming arms when you have blonde hair and pull out a trumpet,” says Shea, 38, who lives in a mariachi world being dominated by males.
That’s how she got the idea for uniting a group of 15 female musicians, from mixed Latin American ethnicities, to play mariachi on the stage at once.
“I imagined the other young ladies that would want to follow in our footsteps,” she says.
Mexican-American lead singer and guitar player Melinda Salcido was invited to the group by Shea when she was founded it in 1999.
“Now 14 years later, and a Grammy under our belt — now it’s spinning out of control,” says Salcido, 35, who started playing mariachi music in high school, but heard it growing up at home since as young as she can remember. “I love the emotion that transpires when you make eye contact with someone you’re singing to and you see someone crying when you sing, ‘Amor eterno,’ or you see the happiness people feel when you sing rancheras.”
Her favorite she says, are the songs the scorned women sing when they tell the guys off.
“I get a lot of requests for those,” says Salcido laughing.
Her favorite songs on the new Grammy-nominated album, “Oye,” was the tribute they did to Whitney Houston when she passed away.
“We heard the news, and Cindy and I read each other’s minds, and we added two songs, ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘One Moment in Time’ to the CD,” says Salcido. “She was really, really special to us. She was my idol as a singer. She was Cindy’s favorite singer too…It really touched our hearts.”
Salcido says Shea is like a sister to her after so many years of practicing and performing together, and the whole group makes up a family.
“The love for mariachi is what we have in common,” she says.
Shea started playing the trumpet at age 8, and later was mentored by Latin jazz icon Arturo Sandoval.
“I traveled the world as a professional trumpet player, playing jazz and salsa. I was trained as a classical musician, but I was doing shows with Celia Cruz when I started playing mariachi music.”
She says what she loves about mariachi music is that it is a genre that can encompass so many different styles, from the bolero from Cuba to guaraca from Venezuela.
“You can get people crying, you can get them laughing — pretty much all emotions [can be evoked] in a one-hour show,” says Shea. “I love watching the response from the audience…and the uniforms are so traditional and beautiful. So much class…I hadn’t experienced that before.”
She says what sets her group apart from other mariachi groups is that they add their own sound and original music. It is also has been the official mariachi band for Disneyland since 2003.
“Back in 1999, I said someday I’m going to win a Grammy, and people would laugh at me,” says Shea. “When I think back to that moment, I cry. The emotions are incredibly intense. Till this day, I still can’t believe that moment happened.”