Cool Ranch 

Let's face it -- right now we need mariachi music

Nestled on the corner of International Boulevard and 41st Avenue in the largely Latino Fruitvale district of East Oakland is Tio To?os. Patterned after the campestre outdoor restaurants in Mexico, where mariachi music and culinary specialties create a colorful blend of culture and rural lifestyle, the nondescript exterior gives way to a decor of arched passageways, red roof tiles, wood-and-leather chairs, cut-paper banners, and bright, star-shaped pi?atas in the green, red, and white colors of the Mexican flag. Tio To?os is run by Jesus Barajas, known around the community as Don Chuy, who named the establishment after his brother Antonio (Uncle Tony). Not surprisingly, it's an authentic slice of home for mexicano immigrants.

Aside from the regional recipes the Barajas family whips up, the establishment is renowned for its mariachi music. Starting around 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 9:30 p.m. on Sundays, the eight-piece Oakland-based Mariachi Los Michoacanos, led by trumpeter Ubaldo Felipe, plays ranchera classics and accompanies guest singers from Mexico.

"I come here about once a year," says singer Jose Antonio Flores, who's from Jarez, Zacatecas, but is based professionally in Guadalajara. "The paisanos here in Oakland receive us very well and really appreciate ranchera music, especially the songs of Jose Alfredo Jimenez. Since the incidents of 9-11, traditional Mexican music has fallen off around here, but I'm trying to lift it back up if I can."

A few weeks ago, Flores began one Saturday night set by faking a drunken stupor as he straggled on stage to sing "Ando Borrocho" (I'm Drunk), a lament of lost love, with his strong tenor and heartfelt vibrato. Wearing a green tapatio suit with gold embroidery and his trademark charro hat, Flores charmed a packed house with songs like "El Rey," "Que Se Me Acabe La Vida," "Camino de Guanajuato," and others from the Jose Alfredo Jimenez songbook. The 1950s superstar wrote a string of songs that have become the bible for mariachi singers.

Leading the group that night was maestro Don Felipe, who formed Mariachi Los Michoacanos in the 1980s and maintains it with local veteran musicians and young talent such as 26-year-old Betty Valencia, who plays guitar and sings during intermissions. After the two-hour set, Don Felipe lamented the downturn mariachi music has taken. Last year the East Bay had five restaurants presenting mariachi music regularly from Richmond to Hayward. Now, Tio To?os is the only one presenting what is considered to be the indigenous music of Mexico.

"We were hit hard and our work really dropped. But during these times is when people need mariachis the most, to help lift their spirit. It's hard to just dwell on sadness. I've had a lot of musicians who returned to Mexico to stay with their families. But in recent months we've seen a nice mix of men and women mariachi singers and players who help fill out the group. That's nice to see."

Singer Nora Villa, la guapisima tapatia (the pretty tapatia), will be the featured performer for February at Tio To?os, 4021 International Blvd., Oakland. For more info: 510-535-0961.

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