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Mendoza keeps the beat while practicing law

Music never far from Madison attorney’s thoughts

Mario Mendoza plays the maracas in August 2010 during a performance with his band, Grupo Candela, at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gramling)

Mario Mendoza has a unique perspective on Madison’s Concerts on the Square summer music series.

The attorney with Murphy Desmond SC, Madison, in 1998 stood with his Latin folk band, Sotavento, and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in front of 10,000 people who were there to listen and relax on the Capitol lawn.

Then-conductor David Lewis Crosby directed the show, while Mendoza played guitar, bass and various percussion instruments.

“It was just magical,” Mendoza said. “And, as it turned out, it was David’s last concert. He passed away two weeks later.

“So it was bittersweet, but I’m so grateful we had the opportunity to work with him.”

Mendoza’s musical influences stretch back to his grandfather, who, while Mendoza was growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, encouraged him to take up an instrument. Mendoza began with piano at 6 and then turned to guitar at 12, playing in a number of garage bands throughout his teenage years.

The musical influences continued when Mendoza enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I discovered the traditions and music of my homeland, Puerto Rico, and other Latin-American places in Madison, Wisconsin, of all places,” he said. “I’d been exposed to that music, but it wasn’t until I got to Madison that I got together with fellow students and started playing Latin music in the mid to late ’80s.

“It’s something that I’ve continued to do ever since.”

In the middle of all that music, Mendoza earned his law degree. He also joined Sotavento, and the band recorded two CDs and toured the U.S., Puerto Rico, Spain and Mexico, typically performing in large, packed concert halls, theaters or at outdoor festivals.

In 2005, Mendoza switched to the 12-piece Grupo Candela, a Latino dance band that typically performs in clubs or outdoor venues, such as at UW-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace or Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

Mendoza’s law and music careers have grown along parallel paths, and he said it would be difficult to pick one over the other.

“Anyone who has a passion for anything, somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds, has dreamed about doing it for a living,” he said. “I’m not saying that I don’t love the law. I do. But sure, I’ve considered music as a career.

“As it is, music has been a good contributor to my income, and it’s very hard for musicians to make a living as their sole endeavor.”

For now, though, Mendoza, who is Grupo Candela’s co-lead singer and a percussionist, is focused on the next show. The band will take the stage Aug. 10 for another Madison concert series, Dane Dances on the rooftop of the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison.

Mendoza predicted there would be thousands of people at the show. But four people in the audience will be the center of Mendoza’s attention: his wife, two daughters and 2-year-old son, who will be seeing his father perform an entire concert for the first time.

“That little boy, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mendoza said. “The boy. Must. Dance.”

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