For most of us not regularly exposed to traditional Mexican music, the mariachi genre recalls little more than quick strumming, stacked harmonies and abundant horns and, of course, those lovely elaborate and colorful cowboy suits. But Jóse Hernàndez, bandleader of Mariachi Sol de México—a group he founded in 1981 at just 23-years-old in Los Angeles—explained in a recent interview with the Source the robust tradition of Mexican mariachi and its vast popularity and prevailing presence in American folk music.
Source Weekly: How did you become a mariachi musician?
Jose Hernandez: I first heard mariachi music as a child. Probably in the womb. I started playing and performing along with my brothers when I was three years old. I am a fifth generation mariachi musician. I was raised listening to the music. My brothers also formed their own mariachi ensembles. My family was a key influence in developing a mariachi presence in the Los Angeles area.
SW: What are some things that most people don't know about mariachi music?
JH: That the musical genre will establish itself as part of the fabric of American folk music. Why? Middle Schools and High Schools across the Southwest have robust and vibrant mariachi music programs. I have traveled across the country to teach master classes at schools and have witnessed firsthand the quality of players that are emerging from these efforts. Last June I taught a clinic to music teachers who are looking at teaching a mariachi class as part of their curriculum. The majority of the teachers were not Latin. The City of Chicago is beginning to establish mariachi music programs as part of the school system. This is a phenomenon that may be foreign in Bend, but you don't have to go too far to find mariachi music being taught. For example, we are expecting several mariachi music classes to attend our performance in Eugene. The Clark County Unified School District in Las Vegas has over 3,000 kids in mariachi music programs. Not all of these kids will become professional mariachi, but it does create Sol de Mexico's future audience and an audience for music and the performing arts in general. Also, the genre's versatility, its popularity across the Americas. I recently traveled to Peru to teach a master class to a roster of professional Peruvian mariachi ensembles. We also get invited to do the same in Mexico. But it is the musicians who invite us, raise money and sponsor these classes. It is almost like going to Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to make tortillas. But this is a great compliment and we are honored that they see value in what we have to offer in terms of the art.
SW: Why is it important to you to continue these musical traditions?
JH: The music gives our first, second, third, generation Mexican and the immigrant community a sense of place and pride. It offers non-Latinos a world of music that they may never have heard.
SW: How many professional mariachi players exist in the world, and how did you come to write your tips about professional mariachi?
JH: You visited my website! The inspiration for the tips comes from my work with youth. A generation ago it was commonplace for some of the grassroots players to learn everything by ear. Some of the ensembles were undisciplined and actually may have been the inspiration for the stereotypical vision of the disheveled mariachi musician popularized in Mexico. I want to be able to influence a sense of pride and dignity in the generation of musicians coming through the ranks. The players emerging from the school system today read music, and are more disciplined. Many continue to go on to study music in college and there is an evolving list of ethnomusicologists that will no doubt be teaching mariachi in colleges and universities in the U.S.
SW: Tell me about those amazing outfits!
JH: Our show clothes are known as charro suits. The suit is the Mexican version of the gentleman cowboy. The suits can be made of suede or wool and are often times decorated with silver ornaments. The sombreros or hats are traditional Mexican with the wide brim. The hats and the suits have traditional motifs embroidered on them, many based on the ranch culture of Mexico. These can also be very elaborate. A well-decorated hat can cost up to $3,000 or more. The suits, all tailor-made, can also cost upwards to three to four thousand dollars depending on the amount and size of the silver decoration.
SW: Tell me about the current incarnation of the band that will pay at the Tower?
JH: The ensemble that our friends at the Tower are bringing to Bend has a youthful face. But make no mistake, the majority have been playing since they were teenagers. My older brother who plays guitar and his son (the sixth generation mariachi) are also a part of the ensemble. There are seven violins, three trumpets, the folk harp, the bass instrument known as the Guitarron, a rhythmic instrument known as the vihuela, and the guitar. Every one of our players is also a vocalist.
SW: What does the Christmas show entail?
JH: The program is a concert that is a wonderful mix of traditional Christmas carols and Mexican holiday music. I also have an arrangement from the Nutcracker Suite performed with a mariachi arrangement. There is a dash of Beethoven. We also draw from the Mexican songbook of classics. You do not have to be a Spanish-speaker to enjoy the evening. But, it is always nice to surrender to the experience and not care if the lyrics are sung in Spanish. After all, you are coming to another kind of holiday celebration. Instead of a party you are coming to a Fiesta.
Mariachi Sol de México de José Hernández "A Merri-Achi Christmas" 7:30 pm. Tue., Dec. 9 Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. $30-$40.