Music Icon Rafael 'Chapito' Chavarria Turns 100

April 04, 2014

The Arizona Latino community will be singing “feliz cumpleaños” or "happy birthday" to music icon Rafael “Chapito” Chavarria this weekend. Chapito is celebrating his 100th birthday Sunday, and the community is celebrating a legacy in Latino music.

Chapito developed his own sound when he returned to Phoenix from his service in World War II. It was a combination of Latin tropical and American big band. If you danced in a Latino club in Phoenix in the '50s, you were probably dancing to something like "Pachanga," a song performed by Chapito

It's also a Spanish word meaning party. And Chapito was the life of the party, at dance halls, weddings and quinceañeras.

Trumpter Devon Bridgewater plays in the Chapito Chavarria Orchestra. He started playing with band just after high school and remembers how Chapito loved to please the crowd.

"People wanted to hear a song, and we played it already twice that night, a lot of musicians would say, 'Hey we already played it, think of something else.' But not Chapito. If the people are happy, we’ll play it again," Bridgewater said. 

Bridgewater, who teaches Chicano Studies at Phoenix College, said Chapito’s legacy is more than a musical trend. It’s a cultural tradition. At a time when Latinos in America were pressured to lose their accents and become more American, Chapito held on to his Mexican roots.

“Rock and Roll didn’t make its way into our book. There was never an electric guitar in the band, you know, let’s put it that way," said Bridgewater.

This made it difficult for Chapito to continue playing at clubs as other music styles became popular, but he was booked months in advance for Latino weddings, quinceañeras and other events. Latina brides-to-be would sometimes book their weddings around Chapito’s schedule.

But Paige Martinez had the privilege of hearing him play many times at her grandmother’s house, because Chapito was a part of her family. His brother was married to her grandmother’s sister.

"Hearing that music was really important and wonderful for me, because when I grew up and I heard it again I was immediately swept back to my grandmother’s home, my nana’s home, to the smell of her kitchen… to knowing who I was," said Martinez.

It was years later that Martinez heard Chapito’s music again, after graduating from film school in New York. It inspired her to make a documentary about the musician. She expects to release the film in September. She calls Chapito the Chicano everyman.

"He worked in cotton ginning, which was a very popular occupation here in Arizona for local Latinos. He grew up in the barrio in Tempe," said Martinez. "He confronted discrimination."

And he helped develop American Legion Post 41, a Hispanic veteran’s organization in Phoenix. Today, Chapito doesn'y play in the band, but Bridgewater said he still attends the practices.

The Chapito Chavarria Orchestra still plays around Phoenix at festivals and cultural events. And of course, they will be at Chapito’s birthday bash this weekend at the Musical Instrument Museum. The museum is celebrating his music and life in a special exhibit that will open on his birthday this Sunday.

A sneak peak of Martinez’s documentary will also be screened during the party.