El Tubador – Part III: A Visit with Sergio Lizarraga of Banda MS

El Tubador – Part III: A Visit with Sergio Lizarraga of Banda MS by J.D. Salas

Over the past couple Journal issues I’ve highlighted both the rich history and diverse musical styles of Banda Sinaloense. As previously stated, the sousaphone is not only a large part of the group’s sound but one of the signifying markers of a Banda Sinaloense ensemble. This section of my work introduces to the tuba and euphonium community one of these sousaphone musicians who has created a viable career in this art form. In a time when performance jobs are few and far between, many Banda Sinaloense musicians are finding themselves making a living solely from their music.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sergio Lizarraga during one of my research trips to Mazatlan, Sinaloa. Mr. Lizarraga is a founding member of Banda MS, one of the top Banda Sinaloense ensembles in Mexico. Along with other groups such as Banda El Recodo and La Arrolladora-Banda Limon, Banda MS has served as one of the most active cultural ambassadors of Banda Sinaloense music to the United States. In fact, when I was able to reach Sergio for this interview, he had just returned from a US tour. One would think that a Banda Sinaloense tour would be limited to the southwestern United States but this particular tour included sold out crowds in such places as De Moines, Iowa and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The life of a tubist and euphoniumist in a classical ensemble can be a pretty thankless existence no matter the importance of the instrument’s part. Occasionally, the instrument gets a passing solo line but for the most part it plays a supportive role. The musical life of a Banda Sinaloense tubist is completely different. The music is full of virtuosic sousaphone lines and this puts the sousaphone at the forefront of the ensemble, giving the musician a “rock star” status to the many fans. Sergio Lizarraga’s role in Banda MS provides a unique perspective for tubists because he is not only the sousaphone player for the group but also the owner/manager.

J.D. Salas: Thank you so much for taking time for this interview. I realize you’re very busy these days.

Sergio Lizarraga: Yes, We’ve been lucky this year with gigs every weekend.

JDS: Have you ever heard of ITEA?

SL: No, I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it.

JDS: It’s an organization dedicated to the tuba and euphonium and over the past year, I’ve tried to introduce Banda Sinaloense music and the importance of the tuba.

SL: Very nice.

JDS: I know that some Banda Sinaloense musicians live in both Mazatlan and Los Angeles. Where do you and your band members live right now?

SL: Currently I live in Mazatlan and many of the other guys in the group also live in Mazatlan. Right now, I’m in El Recodo visiting friends since we just got back from the US. (El Recodo is an agricultural village outside of Mazatlan, Sinaloa. It is known as the home of Banda El Recodo which is currently considered one of the top Banda Sinaloense groups in the world.)

JDS: Last time we talked you mentioned that you were going to be playing in Chicago. How did that go?

SL: We had planned on playing in Chicago but unfortunately that didn’t work out. We ended up playing in Des Moines, Minneapolis, Omaha and Denver.

JDS: Are there many people who listen to Banda music there?

SL: Oh yes, it’s mainly the large Hispanic population in those areas. They were large crowds.

JDS: Here in Texas, Banda Sinaloense is still relatively new.

SL: Well, We’ve performed in areas of Texas such as McAllen, Brownsville, and San Antonio and the crowds have been great.

JDS: How long have you been playing the sousaphone?

SL: I’ve been playing the sousaphone for over twenty years.

JDS: How did you start out playing sousaphone or (another instrument?) Why did you choose the sousaphone?

SL: I wanted to play Banda music so I met with Isidoro “El Chilolo” Ramirez who became my teacher.

JDS: Oh yes, I was able to meet Chilolo on my visits to Mazatlan.

JDS: Did you learn music in one of the schools where Chilolo taught?

SL: No, I traveled to his house every week and took lessons from him. He composed exercises and arranged music for me to play so I could learn to read music.

JDS: Have you ever played any classical tuba music, or just Banda music?

SL: No, I’ve only played Banda Music. There was classical music offered in public school but I never joined while I was there.

JDS: What brand of Sousaphone do you use? Mouthpiece?

SL: I use a King brand tuba. I’m not sure what model number. My mouthpiece is a custom manufactured model that many of the guys use here in Mazatlan.

JDS: When did you start Banda MS?

SL: Banda MS started in 2003. MS stands for Mazatlan Sinaloa.

Photo provided by Sergio Lizarraga. Used with permission.

JDS: How many performances do you have in a month? Are they mainly at home or on the road?

SL: Oh, we’re on the road almost every weekend and we come back to Mazatlan during the week to practice and relax.

JDS: Does Banda MS have any CD recordings available?

SL: Yes, just recently we finished our sixth.

JDS: Many Banda Sinaloense groups are made up of several members of the same family. Do you have any family members who play in Banda MS?

SL: In Banda MS my brother, Alberto Lizarraga, plays with me so it’s a good situation.

JDS: I’ve noticed that many musicians often move between Bandas as they go through their careers. Have you ever played in any other Banda Sinaloense groups?

SL: Other than Banda MS, I’ve only played in Banda La Costeña, which is a small Banda Sinaloense here in Mazatlan.

JDS: During my research I was surprised to learn that many Banda Sinaloense musicians often have nicknames such as “El Sebrucho” (the saw) or “El Gigante” (the giant). Do you have a nickname?

SL: Most people call me “El Checo” (The check). (Chuckles..)

JDS: In your experience, what was the greatest musical moment for you?

SL: Every time I get on stage is a great musical moment for me. It’s a great feeling to start a Ranchera or other piece and the crowd goes wild.

JDS: Do you teach any young musicians how to play sousaphone?

SL: No, right now I’m on the road playing so much that I’m able to make a living that way.

JDS: What advice do you have for musicians that want to start a Banda of their own?

SL: It’s best to start studying music at a school or with a teacher, listen to as much Banda Sinaloense music as possible, and find a performing group to get as much experience as possible.

Now Listen Here bubble: Hear Sergio and Banda MS at http://www.bandams.com.mx/portal/