Local | Senior Lifestyle

Retired Tucson woman puts twist on Sephardic roots with mariachi music

Koreen Johannessen (Courtesy Johannessen)

Koreen Johannessen, 70, had some difficulty retiring. She first announced that she would step down from her clinical social worker position at the University of Arizona Campus Health Service in 2000. Johannessen had been working with U A students with mental health issues throughout the 1990s. “It became clear to me that many of the students’ health issues were often related to alcohol and other substance abuse. With some grant money we could establish a program to interview students, compile data and present the findings. We hoped to use the results to set up preventative programs, which of course needed more grant funding.”

To ensure that the preventative programs would continue to move forward after her retirement, Johannessen returned to Campus Health Service as a consultant for grant writing and administration. Through that work, the mental health programs expanded to include nutrition, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assault prevention as well as alcohol and substance abuse prevention programs.

Concurrent with her work at the UA in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Johannessen served as a volunteer in the Jewish community in several capacities. She was on the UA Hillel Foundation board, where she was president from 1991-1994 — a role that earned her a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Woman of Valor award in 1995.  She also served on the board of trustees of the Jewish Community Foundation up through 2003.

With the Campus Health Service programs in good shape, Johannessen declared her definitive retirement in 2007.

“It was then that I had the time to seriously fool around,” she says. “While I had been working on campus, I took a mariachi class offered at the U of A and I really enjoyed it. So I dusted off my violin and started a musical group.” Though that group doesn’t meet regularly to perform anymore, Johannessen says when opportunities arise, she still enjoys playing with the other musicians. She tries to practice at least an hour a day and takes weekly lessons from Tucson Symphony Orchestra violinist and teacher, David Rife. “Because I really like the local flavor, I continue to take a class on campus with Mariachi Arizona, the University of Arizona’s mariachi organization.”

When Johannessen plays in public with Mariachi Arizona, she says, people from the audience tend to approach her to talk about the music or ask for a particular song. “Because I’m clearly the oldest person in the group, the assumption is that I’m in charge. Folks come to me speaking in Spanish and, not being fluent in the language, I run quickly to find the leader and let him do the talking. Sometimes I think that the group doesn’t quite know what to do with me, but I’m happy just being able to play. I admit that it must look a little strange that this 70-year-old Jewish gringa who doesn’t speak Spanish is playing mariachi.”

But the reality, Johannessen explains, is that she does have some familiarity with Spanish as her maternal grandparents were Sephardim from Turkey and she grew up hearing Ladino spoken within their small Sephardic community in the Bronx. “So I can pick up some Spanish easily, but generally it’s household talk and especially kitchen talk that I remember from when I grew up listening to my mom and her parents.”

The kitchen is another place where Johannessen spends her time “seriously fooling around” in her retirement.  Just not her own kitchen. “For some years I had my elderly mom living with me here in Tucson, and she just loved going over to Roma Imports to have a meal and visit with Lillian Spieth, who is the proprietor.” Roma Imports is an Italian grocery and deli in Tucson’s Barrio San Antonio. Not only does Johannessen know Spieth from the restaurant, they live nearly next-door to each other, so they’ve become close.

“I started by just hanging out at Roma with my mom who just loved the place. And now I’ve been helping out several days a week there for about seven years now,” explains Johannessen. “Twice a year, in March and October, Lillian has an event called ‘Feast’ where they serve a three-course, prix-fixe meal where customers can choose from around 16 different dishes. Each feast features a different regional cuisine of Italy. Some years back Volker, who is Lillian’s husband, suggested that it would be good to have some entertainment between the courses. So that’s how I’ve ended up playing music with a violin partner, Diane Ransdell, at the feast events.”

Not only has Johannessen been helping out behind the counter and on her violin at Roma Imports, she says that she’s become proficient at taking good-looking pictures of food for the store’s website and she maintains Roma’s social media platforms as well.

In search of other opportunities to play music, Johannessen became a member of the Foothills Philharmonic Orchestra about two years ago. The Foothills Philharmonic is an all-volunteer, intergenerational orchestra that performs twice yearly in the Catalina Foothills High School concert hall. Johannessen appreciates the diversity of her musical experiences. While to be a successful mariachi, she explains, you have to have hundreds of songs in your head, playing in an orchestra provides the chance to sit down and have the music on a stand in front of you. Either way, this actively engaged lady seems to know the score.

Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.