99-Year-Old Arizona Music Icon Shares His Memories

September 13, 2013

A 99-year-old Arizona music icon will have his work celebrated and performed at the Musical Instrument Museum this weekend. A look at the career and impact of the man known as “Chapito.” This is Pachanga, a song performed by Chapito Chavarria and his band at clubs, weddings, quincenieras and dances throughout Arizona during the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Raphael "Chapito” Chavarria learned music from his father through drills that he can still recite in his west Phoenix apartment, 90 years after he first mastered them.

Chapito, which is Spanish for “shorty” began playing weddings with family and friends in the '20s and '30s. Like many other young men, Chavarria was called to military duty in World War II, serving in the South Pacific.

Post World War II Phoenix saw the growth of the Valley’s Mexican American population. That is when Chapito’s career took off playing at clubs like the Calderon and Riverside in south Phoenix. The men went with a suit on, beautiful women were well dressed and everything; they went like they were going to a high toned place.

 Chavarria patterned his music after the group Sonora Santanera which had an orchestral sound. He said he modified that by adding a sax to the arrangement.

 "I says three trumpets, that’s sanatanera, they don’t play rancheras, puro Latino If I take a one trumpet out and put a sax in there, then el sax will make the difference in the sound and with a sax I can play anything," Chavarria said.

On the day I met Chapito at his home, family friend Devon Leal Bridgewater was visiting. He is a doctoral student of Latin American history and a musician himself. He said the clubs and dances of Chapito’s era were about more than just music.

"It was a place where they could go and network and find out who was working where. It was a place to establish the community and build up relationships," Bridgewater said.

Bridgewater said many of those young Latinos were part of an evolution brought about by World War II.

"It was that upward mobility that the GI Bill gave to a lot of people, education. Chapito went to ASU after the war and got his vocational degree," Bridgewater said.

After a falling out with a local club owner, Chavarria found a new niche. He became the band that young Mexican American couples had to have for their weddings. Chavarria said his lead singer came up with a popular gimmick know as the green dance.

"The green dance. Luis Estrada started this at a wedding," Chavarria said.

In the green dance the bride and groom dance with guests who pin money onto the newlyweds. Chapito’s green dances were known to go on until the band felt the newlyweds had collected enough.

Chavarria  permanently retired in the early '90s.

"In my long stretch I played many weddings, Chapito Chavarria’s orchestra, I played dances and weddings, Vestas clubs, oh man I had jobs all over," Chavarria said.

A documentary of his career is currently in production, and this Sunday at the Musical Instrument Museum a concert featuring his music will be performed by local Latino musicians including a few who once played with him.

And as a matter of full disclosure, the Chapitro Chavarria Orchestra did play at my wedding 36 years ago, and yes the green dance did last a long time.

Thanks to our friends at Horizonte for providing us a copy of Chapito’s music.

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