José Martínez Barajas, better known as “Pepe Martínez,” was born in 1941 in Tecalitlán, Jalisco, the birthplace of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. His father, Blas Martínez, was a harpist who played for a period with Mariachi Vargas. When Pepe was eight years old, the Martínez family moved to Guadalajara, where he began an informal study of all the mariachi instruments. By the age of 10 he was playing for tips on city buses, and at 12 he was playing alongside his father in an official mariachi group of the Mexican Army. The talented boy soon caught the attention of General Bonifacio Salinas, who awarded him a three-year scholarship to study with concert violinist Ignacio Camarena. Before the three years were up, however, the virtuoso terminated their apprenticeship, insisting that young Pepe was already a full-fledged professional violinist and needed no further lessons.
At 15, Pepe left the army group to form his own youth mariachi, Los Tigres de Jalisco, which lasted less than a year. Soon he found himself in Mexico City performing with Mariachi Perla de Occidente, an ensemble that had been the training ground for numerous members of Mariachi Vargas and other famous groups. Here he gained invaluable experience recording with singers such as Javier Solís and performing in venues like the Teatro Blanquita.
In 1961 Pepe returned to Guadalajara to join Mariachi Los Tecolotes, recording his first musical arrangements on an historical album by that group. Later that year he traveled to Southern California, where he remained for five years with Mariachi Águila, one of the two best mariachi groups in the United States at that time. In 1966 he returned to Guadalajara where he formed the legendary Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán, one of the most prolific mariachis of all time, in terms of recorded output. It was with this group he cut his teeth as an arranger, recording over 500 original arrangements on over 100 long-playing records.
In 1975 Pepe joined Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán as its arranger and musical director, a position he holds to this day. It was with Vargas that his composing and arranging skills reached their pinnacle. His style is the most original of any of that group’s arrangers since Rubén Fuentes, and his influence on the mariachi genre has been immense. Many original Martínez creations, including Cuerdas de Satín, Popurrí Los Gallos, Violín Huapango, Viva Veracruz, La Fiesta del Mariachi, and El Viajero — as well as countless Martínez arrangements of pieces by other authors — have become standards throughout the mariachi world.