Had a great conversation with the 2012 Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Vocal Competition Winner Karen Zavala on our flight to Detroit, Michigan. Read below to see what Karen has to say about how she felt winning the competition, what she likes most about mariachi music and words of advice she has for students interested in participating in the competition this year.
When did you first realize you could sing?
I was 12 and part of a youth group through my church. They needed a singer. I didn’t know at the time I could sing but was asked to step in because there were no other singers. I sang and people really liked it so they asked me to sing some more. I sang a bit with a mariachi group during middle school and learned how to play the trumpet. I sang during high school with Mariachi Azteca and have continued singing mariachi music through college.
Who are your favorite artists?
Aida Cuevas, Beatriz Adriana, Lola Beltran and Lucha Villa are all favorites. Mariachi music was really music sung by men for so long until these women began singing and proved to audiences that women could hold their own with mariachi music.
How many years have you competed in the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Vocal Competition?
This was my third year competing. The first year was in 2010 when I competed with Aires de Mayab. I was so nervous but still came out winning third place. In 2011 I came back with Juan Colorado and placed second in the college/university category. Then in December, I returned with Palomita de Ojos Negros and told myself I was really going to just have a great time and I did. Before I walked on stage my vocal coach, Michelle Quintero, told me “O.k. Karen…. knock it out of the park” and I did. I was determined to just get out there and have fun and I won Best Mariachi Vocalist in the U.S.
How long did you prepare for the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Vocal competition?
I started preparing in the Summer of 2012. This is when I started looking into songs. Our mariachi directors advised us to have a few options by September when school started.
How did you pick Palomita de Ojos Negros as your competition piece?
I wanted to sing something different from the traditional Huapango. I knew I definitely wanted to stay away from songs that were sung every year like Tata Dios, Crucifijo de Piedra and Cielo Rojo and change things up a bit.
The first song I recorded was Cofrecito because this was a song my mom and I enjoyed listening to around the house. It’s also a song she sung in a competition when she was young but I wasn’t quite happy with the way it turned out in the recording.
Michelle (my vocal coach) knew my voice really well and she suggested I try Palomita de Ojos Negros. I liked the song from the beginning but was a little nervous that it wasn’t as difficult as other songs I knew would be in the competition. But when I recorded it I really liked the way it turned out. The song is catchy and upbeat and has a lot of energy and I had a lot of fun singing it.
When I found out I made it to the finals, we started putting the show together. We added the accordion player (Robert Casillas) to the standard and traditional mariachi instrumentation of the violins, trumpets, guitar, guitarron, vihuela and harp and added some dancing and just had a lot of fun with the piece.
What is the song about?
Palomita is bird – like a dove — a pretty bird. Because its a bird it attracts people. So the song is about a bird but the bird represents a woman. The song is a flirtatious song about this one little bird (or woman) that everybody wants. She tries to play hard to get but commits the crime of being too flirtatious. The song portrays a girl who might be very Catholic and perhaps brought up in the church but also has thoughts about being free like a bird.
How did you feel when you won “Best Vocalist in the U.S”?
This has definitely been one of my biggest accomplishments and blessings to win this prestigious competition and to be selected by members of greatest in the world – Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. This was really the biggest part for me…to be recognized by some of the greatest vocalists in the world as the best vocalist in the U.S.
I clearly remember sitting in the audience and the first, second and third place winners had been announced. I thought to myself oh well…I guess I didn’t win because they hadn’t called my name. And then I heard them say “and now we’re going to announce the Best Vocalist in the U.S.” and they called my name. It took a few seconds for it to sink in. My little brother nudged me with his elbow and said “that’s you…you won.” And I was like “oh my God, that’s me, yes, I won” and I began making my way up to the stage. I was crying…tears of joy… as I was walking up the steps.
What words of advice do you have for students interested in preparing for the Extravaganza competition?
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Don’t see it as a competition but as an opportunity to share your talents with everyone you know and to let people know what you love doing most. Most importantly have fun and enjoy the experience.
What is it that you like best about mariachi music?
To be honest with you, it’s the instrumental part. Every time I hear the sound of the strumming of the guitar it fascinates me. It makes me happy and excited. I love listening to the vihuela and guitar solos and I love the strong bold sound of the trumpets and the beautiful sound of the guitarron (the base instrument) that gives the mariachi music its unique sound. I love the way all of the instruments come together to make such beautiful music.
What other kinds of music do you enjoy singing?
I love singing salsa/merengue and I’m part of Salsa del Rio which is Texas State University’s salsa/merengue group. I also enjoy signing country music and love Patsy Cline, Miranda Lambert and especially Martina McBride.
About Karen Zavala
Karen Zavala is an undergraduate student at Texas State University where she is working towards a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Forensic Psychology. Karen’s goal is to work as a Federal Agent for the U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (part of the Homeland Security). She would eventually like to be an entertainment lawyer where she can combine her interests in law and entertainment.
Karen was born Oct. 15 in Laredo, Texas and is the oldest, and only daughter of four children. She graduated from Cigarroa High School in the top 5% of her class. She is in her third year at Texas State University and plans to graduate in the Spring of 2014.
As the 2012 Best Mariachi Vocalist in the U.S. Karen Zavala was awarded a $1,000 scholarship by the Houston Grand Opera and TV Azteca and $1,000 from Festival People en Español. She won the opportunity to open for the world’s preeminent Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan in San Antonio and was awarded an all-expense paid trip from UMS to perform at the prestigious Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan today at 4:00 p.m. She is also scheduled to perform in her hometown of Laredo, Texas where she’ll once again open for Mariachi Vargas on October 11.