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Abel Aranda’s Jazz Journey

The Mexican guitarist wanted to study jazz in the U.S.—and found help in a surprising place

Abel Aranda
Abel Aranda (photo: José Aguilar)

One year after Abel Aranda started studying guitar at the local church in his home city of Villahermosa, Mexico, his teacher played him Michael Brecker’s 2001 Nearness of You: The Ballad Book album, featuring with Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette. The 16-year-old boy’s interest in more popular music—punk, rock, metal, and prog rock—took a rapid turn.

“That was the day I fell in love with the sound of jazz,” Aranda recalls. “I told myself that I would study hard so that one day I could study jazz in the United States.”

It seemed like a teenager’s pipe dream, given the many economic and social challenges facing an ordinary kid from a lower-class family in which nobody before him went to college. “The inequality of opportunities [in Mexico] is shameful and social mobility is very low compared to other countries,” Aranda says.

But he realized he was learning more about the world through playing music, which he considered his purpose in life. After about 10 years of planning and saving, he was accepted into Veracruz University’s jazz studies program. Tuition was the equivalent of $30 per year—and Aranda says even that sum was a financial challenge. He received a bachelor’s degree in January 2020, two months before his 30th birthday.

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He says he wanted to move from Villahermosa to Mexico City to pursue musical opportunities but had to return home to help support his family after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Joining his family in the city of Puebla, he found work teaching guitar, improvisation, and arranging at a local university. He also taught at a high school and middle school, as well as giving private lessons. A few months later, it all became virtual teaching when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Pursuing a post-graduate degree in jazz studies was still top-of-mind, so Aranda auditioned for the graduate jazz studies program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He was accepted but wasn’t sure grad school was possible, even with a partial scholarship.

Aranda then visited about 10 government and private institutions in Mexico. He also wrote a letter to one of the richest men in the country, asking for support. Nobody responded. But he knew that Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at least said that he favored giving opportunities to all Mexicans. So he drove two hours from Puebla to Mexico City on May 31, 2021, arriving at the National Palace before dawn to hand-deliver a letter seeking help.

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While he was at the palace, Aranda spotted reporters arriving for a daily press briefing. He told Diego Cedillo of the Tabasco Today newspaper (one of his native region’s local periodicals) about his situation, hoping the reporter would ask the president about it. Cedillo did so—not on that day but two weeks later, on June 16, which was Aranda’s deadline to accept UArts’ offer. In an extended answer, in which he talked about the purpose of education and his commitment to supporting those most in need, López Obrador said, “Yes, I will help the young man.” Minutes later, Aranda received a phone call from the Office of the Federal Ministry of Culture, telling him that they would pay for everything he needed to study in Philadelphia.

“President López Obrador knew my case and without hesitation offered me the support to achieve my mission,” Aranda says. “He truly believes that everyone who wants to study should have the opportunity to do so, that education is a right of all, no matter the economic and social condition of one’s parents.”

Aranda earned his UArts master’s degree during his one year in Philadelphia, where director Don Glanden said he “excelled in all aspects of the graduate jazz studies program and was an inspiration to the other students with whom he interacted.”

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Before graduating last May, he auditioned for and was hired by Celebrity Cruises for its bands. He spent the summer and early fall aboard the 2,900-passenger Celebrity Apex, cruising through Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, the United Kingdom and Europe, returning in November for Miami-based Caribbean sailings. That experience will enable Aranda to acquire an American work visa and remain in the United States. He plans to settle in the Philly area and pursue a career as a guitarist, composer, and educator.

“Studying at UArts gave me a great perspective on jazz pedagogy and the professional attitudes that a musician must have to function at a high level in society,” Aranda says. “It opened my eyes to see beyond a specific style and see that all great music is worth studying at an intellectually deep level.”