More to Mariachis Than Big Hats and Sequined Suits

Band leader Jose Hernandez aims to dispel myths associated with the Mexican music

It was a perfect mariachi moment. Under a sultry September moon, Jose Hernandez, arguably the world's premier practitioner of this signature Mexican music, did what mariachis always have done best - sang for the love of his life. And, as is increasingly true of this mariachi with a mission, his passion ran not to a woman but to an idea. He wants to show the world there is more to mariachis than big hats and sequined suits.

"Mariachis are educated musicians," he announced from beneath his huge hat brim, while waving his trumpet to the wildly applauding sellout crowd of some 6,000. "They can play any kind of music there is!"

The concert was the first fund-raiser for a major milestone in pursuit of that goal. Mr. Hernandez wants to build the world's first mariachi museum by 2000 in Los Angeles. If the support evidenced by the audience at the Greek Theater is any indication, he will have his showplace.

"I want to dispel the image that mariachi is five fat guys in a bar," he laughs. "Most Anglos only know the stereotype, but the good ones are as trained as any musician in the world."

To punctuate his point during the concert, Hernandez and his group, Mariachi Sol de Mexico, ripped through a medley of swing standards and pop hits from the past five decades.

Hernandez was born in Mexicali, Mexico, but moved to the United States when he was 4. Immersed in the family business of professional mariachi musicians, he was singing with his five brothers by then and had a trumpet in his mouth by age 10. When he graduated from high school, he enrolled in music school.

He started to arrange his own music, combining traditional mariachi sounds with jazz and pop influences. In 1986, he began performing live with his own group. He says, "I want mariachi to take its place with the great musical traditions of the word. I am trying to bring more respect to mariachi music, both from the studio musicians and the classical music circuit."

To that end, Mariachi Sol de Mexico has played more than 20 concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as with orchestras in New Mexico and Colorado. He is musical director of the Las Vegas International Mariachi Festival in addition to the Mariachi U.S.A. Festival. He has also begun arranging his own classical outlet, the Sol de Mexico Symphony Orchestra. And he has scored several Hollywood films: "Old Gringo," "American Me," and "Don Juan DeMarco."

The band leader says he gets flack from mariachi purists but says, "that's foolish. Mariachi has been evolving from the very first. It began in the mid-1800s with three serenading peasants with a guitar, violin, and harp."

"I see mariachi going in the direction of all great world musical traditions right now," he says, pointing to the explosion of collaborations with Celtic and Indian musicians on the popular Western music scene as examples.

Richard Alatorre, L.A. city councilman, notes that if anyone can achieve this goal, it is Hernandez. "He is one of the most talented and respected mariachis in the world and is ahead of his time." The politician also notes that Hernandez is quietly fighting another stereotype - the idea that Mexican-Americans don't give back to their community. Pointing to programs for inner-city children by the Mariachi Heritage Society, which Hernandez funds with hundreds of thousands of dollars, he adds, "Jose's a real humanitarian."

His most recent project finds him back on the experimental edge. He just finished an album called "Amigos," a collaboration with the Beach Boys in which the California pop singers perform in Spanish. It is being released by Hollywood Records this month.

While his music finds an automatic audience in the Mexican-America community, Hernandez says the test of his success will be the chord his music strikes among the non-Spanish-speaking. At the concert intermission, hospital worker Mark King gives the answer for which Hernandez hopes: "With the violin, the guitar, there's no language barrier. It's universal, and it's great. I love it."

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