After bolstering Austin’s mariachi scene, inspiring generations of students and blazing a musical trail across the country, maestro Ezekiel “Zeke” Castro — who directs the mariachi ensemble at the University of Texas — will take his final bow in May when he retires after a noted career.
On Sunday, the longtime music educator and musician will direct the last spring concert for his ensemble Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán at the Butler School of Music Recital Studio. A reception honoring his retirement will follow.
Castro, 78, did not grow up playing mariachi music. In fact, he didn’t pick it up until he was 30, but the native Austinite always had music in his soul.
At age 9, he was the youngest among a group of Austin school district students selected to participate in the inaugural 1948 class of what’s now called the String Project at UT. Castro later became a teacher and conductor for the program, which he now credits as the springboard for his career as a performer, educator and innovator.
“I’ve had a grand time,” Castro said on a recent evening before leading one of the last mariachi rehearsals for his farewell spring concert.
RELATED: ‘El Rey’ of mariachi music
After spending two decades working with student orchestras and playing in symphonies in Georgia and California, Castro returned to Texas in the late 1970s. In 1980, when he founded the first mariachi programs for Austin public schools at Fulmore Middle School and Travis High School, he didn’t realize the ripple effect that would create in the city.
“Mr. Castro has inspired many students throughout his teaching career to continue performing mariachi music long after they’ve participated in his classes,” said Alex Ramirez, who formed part of Castro’s first mariachi class at Fulmore and now performs with Mariachi Amor. He’s among numerous former students who have helped boost Austin’s mariachi music scene. “I’ve been fortunate and grateful to have been one of his first students.”
Building the district’s mariachi program, Castro said, remains among his career highlights. “I didn’t know I had it in me,” Castro said of pioneering the nationally recognized mariachi programs. Today, the school district has eight mariachi programs at four high schools, three middle schools and an elementary school.
Castro still remembers the first time he took students to see what’s considered the world’s best mariachi band, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. “It opened my students’ eyes to what a mariachi was really supposed to sound like, look like and (exude in) their stage presence,” he said. “They came back fired up.”
Castro remains grateful to all the parents who believed in the new program and raised money for the fledgling group. “What else can a teacher ask for?” he said. Parents’ support led to overall community support. “It united Hispanic parents,” he said.
In 1986, Castro became the Austin district’s Teacher of the Year, an honor that had never before been bestowed upon a Hispanic educator in the district.
At UT, Castro launched the popular Longhorn Mariachi Camp in 2013 for at-risk high school students and school districts across the state serving low-income students. After participating in mariachi camp, he said, students are often inspired to pursue higher education, including enrolling at UT.
During a recent mariachi class, his students rehearsed a mariachi version of the UT school spirit song “The Eyes of Texas,” and Castro proudly sang along and gave his students the thumbs-up sign.
“I get a big bang out of mariachi music,” he said. “It’s instant feedback versus playing in a symphony orchestra. It’s personal because often you’re right smack in front of people. They tell you it was wonderful, they invite you to have some food, they carry conversations and give personalized thank you’s. Who doesn’t like that?”
IF YOU GO:
Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán Spring Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Butler School of Music Recital Studio, 2406 Robert Dedman Drive
A Zeke Castro retirement celebration will follow concert at room MBE 2.106