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Remembering Gabriel Barrios Zavala

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Throughout the pandemic, we've been remembering the lives of some of the people who have died from COVID-19. Today, we remember mariachi teacher Gabriel Barrios Zavala. He was 76 years old when he died last February in Anaheim, Calif.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As his son, Oliver, put it...

OLIVER ZAVALA: Gabriel Zavala was a definitely a force of nature in the Orange County community of arts.

RASCOE: That's because in 1996, he opened up Rhythmo Mariachi Academy. So he spent the last couple of decades passing his love of mariachi and his strong work ethic onto thousands of students.

ZAVALA: My father was a very charismatic teacher, but when he started to see that you weren't living up to your full potential, he had no problem letting you know, you're lazy and you need to practice more.

CHANG: Oliver Zavala says his dad loved to put former students on the spot by asking them suddenly to perform.

ZAVALA: He would pull you up and go, hey, and here's a former student of ours and, you know, and come on up and hand them mic. Here you go, Mr. Lawyer. Here's the microphone (laughter).

CHANG: And Gabriel Zavala was himself a master performer.

ZAVALA: He gave it everything he had. When he sang a song, he made you feel it, man. He would bring you to tears, or he'd fill you with joy, or he'd fill you with hate or whatever that he wanted you to experience.

CHANG: Music has always been integral to the Zavala family, says Oliver.

ZAVALA: All of my family has had a pretty strong musical background. My great grandmother played the accordion on the trains during the Mexican Revolution for tips and stuff.

RASCOE: Gabriel grew up in an adobe hut in a small Mexican village, and from a young age, he was something of a musical prodigy. He'd listened to his older brother's music lessons.

ZAVALA: He would be like the little 5-year-old in the corner doing it better than they were doing it (laughter).

CHANG: It wasn't long before they started playing together, and in the late 1960s, they formed a band.

ZAVALA: My uncles and my father, they had a group called Los Siete Hermanos Zavala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: The band enjoyed local stardom in Anaheim well into the 1970s. As a young boy, some of Oliver's earliest memories are of listening to the sounds of their early morning rehearsals.

ZAVALA: We're talking like 5, 6 in the morning (laughter). Get up and practice. And I would hear the practicing going on. I'd be kind of half asleep, and I'd hear just the music and this incredible harmonies, and they were such great singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOS SIETE HERMANOS ZAVALA: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: This is a recording of Los Siete Hermanos Zavala performing one of Gabriel Zavala's original compositions. It's one of the few that exists of the group, Oliver says.

ZAVALA: My father's mentality in the old days was that when you went into the studio, it costs a lot of money to do that.

RASCOE: Plus, Oliver says his dad was old school.

ZAVALA: It's still on manuscript and still on paper. I'm going to have to go through it and bring it to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Oliver Zavala says he won't ever stop bringing his father's legacy to life, and that includes Rhythmo Mariachi Academy.

ZAVALA: Just that simple thing of sharing your time with a child or a teenager, the love of music, the love of mariachi music, it's been one of the driving forces to keep going with what I'm doing. It's hard without my father around.

CHANG: The academy had to close during the pandemic, when it lost more than half of its students. Zavala says they may have to close again, but even so...

ZAVALA: I will never stop doing the mariachi program. I'll do it on Zoom. I'll do it on - in the park (laughter). It's something that cannot die.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

JUAN GABRIEL: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.