Special Guest: Dr. Robert Saxe and the Music of Mexico Ensemble, 1964

Our special guest is Robert Saxe, UCLA '67, '79.  Saxe earned his Ph.D. in Management, but played violin, guitar, and jarana huasteca in the Music of Mexico ensemble.  I am thrilled he has agreed to share his memories of the early years of the Music of Mexico ensemble. - Maureen

Huasteca conjunto - Robert Saxe, Larry Saunders, Donn Borcherdt

I had enjoyed playing violin in my high school orchestra.  In the fall of 1964, when I was working toward my bachelor's degree in psychology at UCLA, I went to Schoenberg Hall to try out for the orchestra.  The director at the time was Mehli Mehta (Zubin Mehta's father).  He was not very impressed with my tryout, and I was not accepted into the orchestra.  I was walking dejectedly down the hall, with my violin case under my arm.  An energetic young man was walking toward me, and our conversation went something like this:

"Is that a violin?"


"Well, I have a group that you need to hear.  I'm Donn Borcherdt, and I lead the UCLA mariachi.  We have a rehearsal tonight in the basement of Schoenberg.  We need players, and we have a great time.  Please stop by and see how you like it."

I perked up immediately, showed up for the rehearsal, which I did indeed like, went out with the group to Ships Coffee Shop afterwards for snacks and conversation, and went home with a sheaf of violin music and a jarana huasteca to learn.

Huasteco conjunto - Art Gerst, Donn Borcherdt, Robert Saxe

Donn was working on his Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology, with a concentration on the music of Mexico.  As part of his degree requirements, he led an ensemble and performed the music of the culture he was studying.  There were also groups performing music of other cultures, including regions of Java, Japan, and Africa, led by doctoral students studying musical traditions from those areas.

My experience with the mariachi was the highlight of my time at UCLA.  The group had a number of talented musicians, much more so than me, who were enthusiastic, hard working, and outgoing.  We played concerts with the other groups from the Ethnomusicology department.  We also played concerts at other universities, and a concert in a movie theater in Merced for the local elementary school students.  They asked for our autographs afterwards as if we were rock stars!  We also played occasional parties, played at restaurants for fun and free food, and once played for an event sponsored by the Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles promoting commercial ties with Mexico.  The bartenders gave us a few leftover bottles of tequila, which were spirited out in our instrument cases.  One of the bottles was later consumed very slowly over a long night of listening to Donn's extensive ethnic music tape collection.

The year before I joined the mariachi, Donn had invited the Ballet Folclórico of the University of Guadalajara's Escuela de Artes Plásticas to perform with the mariachi at the UCLA Folk Festival.  In turn, the ballet invited the mariachi to visit them in Guadalajara during winter break in December 1964.  I drove to Guadalajara with Donn and several other members of the mariachi.  The dancers were very warm and welcoming.  Emilio Pulido, Melitón Salas, and Rafael Zamarippa were among those I remember, and they continued on to highly successful careers in art and dance.  One of the dancers, Benjamino Hernandez, gave me a beautiful watercolor he had painted of a Guadalajara scene, which still hangs on my wall, inscribed "Para Roberto de su amigo Benjas 12-64."


Ballet Folclórico of the University of Guadalajara's Escuela de Artes Plásticas and the Music of Mexico Ensemble


One night one of the dancers wanted to serenade his girlfriend on her saint's day.  A group of dancers and musicians piled into a couple of cars, and we drove over to her house on the outskirts of town, on a cold, brilliantly starry night, keeping warm with sips from a bottle of tequila passed around the back seat.  We played and sang under her window for a long time, and she finally opened the window and invited us in for snacks and hot chocolate.  Nice memories!

-- Robert Saxe

Jarocho conjunto - Robert Saxe, Donn Borcherdt, Art Gerst

The three large images are part of the Archive's Ethnomusicology Department collection.  To see the Music of Mexico photos that Dr. Saxe donated, check out an earlier "From the Archives" on the Music of Mexico Ensemble.

Mariachi de Uclatlán will be celebrating their 50th anniversary in May.  Please join them. 

All photos © The Regents of the University of California, All Right Reserved.

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