Local musician Lesly Reynaga couldn’t help but think back to the time nearly a decade ago when she attended her first Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park. She saw some of the country’s biggest performers at the festival, which draws about 450,000 music lovers, and she thought, “One day, I’m going to be on that stage.”
On Saturday morning, Reynaga made her ACL Fest debut. The Mexican-born Austinite became one of the first acts in ACL’s 20-year-history to perform with a full mariachi band. And not just any mariachi band– the University of Texas’ Mariachi Paredes de Tejastiltán – the ensemble where she honed her mariachi style as a featured vocalist.
Before the show, Reynaga kept channeling positive energy to keep herself as calm as possible. From her vantage point on the stage, she could see the throngs of fest goers and the view of what’s considered Austin’s most loved green space, Zilker Park.
“It was a dream come true,” Reynaga says after a trailblazing performance that she’s been working toward for years. Joined by her four-piece backing band of mariachi musicians along with Austin Samba dancers, Reynaga debuted her blend of música that borrows from mariachi tradition infused with modern rhythms.
In the days leading up to the historic performance, Reynaga felt both grateful for the opportunity but also anxious about the biggest moment of her career. “There is so much work that goes into preparing for such a big stage performance,” she says. What an audience sees on stage is just “one little aspect of the massive work that went on behind closed curtains.”
Rehearsals on the week of the fest brought Reynaga back to her alma mater. In the burnt orange-and-white covered walls of the UT Longhorn band hall, Reynaga came together with the student mariachi ensemble, her bandmates, dancers and more members of her team for the practice.
She was back in her old college day stomping grounds, but this was a different Reynaga. No longer a student; she was now in charge and running the show. She’s stepped into the next phase of her career and it looks natural on her. Everything – from her debut EP “Fool’s Paradise” in 2017 to her soon-to-be released album – has led to this career highlight, which is helping prove that roots music representing comunidad can be presented to and enjoyed by a mass audience.
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During rehearsal breaks, Reynaga huddled with her four dancers, dressed in folkloric red and green outfits, to explain the show flow. “Just ask questions as they come,” she told them. She ping-ponged between them, her bandmates and the students, ensuring everyone was on the same page before rehearsing the entire 45-minute set. “Whew! How do you guys feel?” she asked after going through the performance.
Most of the ACL show, except for one song, featured unreleased music as well as her own mariachi compositions. While fans of mariachi have held classic songs in their hearts throughout the passage of time, Reynaga challenged herself to create new ones. “What would it be like for mariachi music to come from a female’s perspective?” she asks.
At the Barton Springs stage at ACL this weekend, Reynaga’s enthusiastic crowd cheered her on, some traveling from across Texas to see her. For a 45-minute moment at the festival, cultura was not only represented but celebrated. When Reynaga stepped onto the stage in a charro hat with the power of the UT mariachi group as well as her bandmates and dancers behind her, the crowd could feel the energy. Something bigger was happening. Nuestra gente felt seen.