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Seattle-area Mexicans find pulse of home in Banda Vagos

Only a whisper of a breeze drifts off the water on this scorching August afternoon, but temperatures in the 90s don’t wilt the South Park crowd.

Older couples, young parents with their children, even gum-cracking teenagers wait patiently in the shade for the main musical attraction of this year’s Duwamish River Festival: Banda Vagos, a Mexican big band that performs a traditional style of music known as banda.

Eventually, more than a dozen men dressed in white pants and red shirts squeeze onto the makeshift stage. As soon as they lift their horns and start to play, couples hop up to dance to the infectious tunes.

“Banda is a genre of Mexican music that originates in Germany,” explains Cesar Amaral, the co-founder of Banda Vagos. “It was brought here by German and Austrian soldiers in the early 1900s.”

The soldiers were stationed in Texas and northern Mexico, and the music is still popular across that region, but Seattleite Amaral didn’t grow up with banda.

His father, Roberto Sr., was a musician in his native Mexico, part of a group that performed pop standards. He moved to Seattle in 1988 and found work as a dishwasher, but he never abandoned music.

“There were always instruments around the house,” says Cesar. “Always a drum set somewhere because he’s a drummer. I started playing trumpet and my brother, Roberto Jr., studied saxophone.”

When the boys were in their early teens, they played gigs with their father in local bars and cantinas.

Eventually, Cesar Amaral joined the Roosevelt High School Jazz band. And that’s where he learned about banda.

“We were traveling with the jazz band in Mazatlan,” he says. His fellow band members spent a lot of time there in the local market, browsing through racks of Mexican musical recordings.

“They would buy CDs with these big groups of 20 musicians, because they loved the sousaphones, clarinets, and other instruments like you’d find in a high school marching band,” Amaral says.

He figured if his pals loved this banda music, Mexicans living in the Seattle area might enjoy it, too.

So when he got home he and his family formed Banda Vagos.

That was 16 years ago.

Banda Vagos has found a loyal audience among the more than 50,000 Mexican-born people who now live in King County. The musicians perform at weddings, quinceaneras, even funerals. They also play a couple of times a week in local clubs.

The Banda Vagos repertoire includes old standards, but they also write and perform their own music. Earlier this year, their song “Te Quiero Mucho” won best original composition in the first annual Univision Seattle awards. Banda Vagos will release its first album this fall.

Back in South Park, the infectious banda music melds with the tantalizing aromas from a taco cart. Everyone is hot and sweaty, but some intrepid couples stay on their feet, moving to the relentless banda beat. This is a fiesta, after all. A little taste of Mexico, on the shores of Seattle’s Duwamish River.

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