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Changing Tradition to Save It : O.C. Festival's Mariachis Say the Genre Can't Survive Without Evolving


In mariachi music, change is not part of a trend; it's a part of survival.

"If we only allow our performers to play the music they were playing 40 or 50 years ago, we'll never appeal to a younger audience," says Juan M. Elias, executive director of Arizona-based Los Ninos Production Co. The organization is holding its second annual Orange County International Mariachi Festival tonight at the Anaheim Convention Center, where six acts will play.

"Turn on a (Latino) radio station anywhere, and you might hear one or two mariachi tunes, and the rest of the tunes are something else," Elias said. "Even kids from Mexico are influenced by the sounds of the Top 40," so some mariachi musicians are starting to expand their repertoires to include material that can compete with contemporary tunes.

On Saturday, festival-goers will get a taste of experimental mariachi styles as well as traditional sounds. Scheduled to play are Mariachi Tlaquepaque of Placentia; Las Perlitas Tapatias of Guadalajara; South El Monte-based Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez, and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan of Mexico City. Mexican singer and actress Lucero and Tucson-based Ballet Folklorico de San Juan also will perform.

Renowned for its inventive repertoire is Mariachi Sol de Mexico, which has been known to play big-band, classical and pop tunes as well as traditional material. Among the numbers that the 15-member group plans to perform Saturday is Austrian composer Franz von Suppe's "Poet and Peasant" Overture.


The 10-minute piece has been performed by mariachis in Mexico, but never in the United States and never with such an involved musical arrangement, said Jose Hernandez, the band's leader and arranger. "Imagine a 10-minute-long piece!" Hernandez said. In arranging the piece, "I utilize the many different colors of the mariachi sound."

Hernandez, a fifth-generation mariachi player whose five brothers also are mariachi musicians, said he shrugs off suggestions from purists who say mariachi music should not venture into new territory.

"It's been evolving for 200 years," Hernandez said. "For example, at the beginning of the century, a mariachi band had just three instruments--a guitar, a harp and a violin. So when (purists) say, 'Let's preserve the tradition,' I say, 'It's too late.' "

Hernandez, who helped arrange the music for Linda Ronstadt's 1987 Spanish-language album "Canciones de Mi Padre," said he has found that second- and third-generation Mexican Americans "like the old songs, but they also like the new arrangements. Other mariachis tend to play their songs just like on the records . . . but Mariachi Sol has that extra spark that has attracted a lot of kids.

"People call us the avant-garde of mariachis. Our signature song--believe it or not--is 'New York, New York.' " In fact, the John Kander-Fred Ebb title tune from the movie is the title track of Mariachi del Sol's new mariachi album for the EMI Latin label.


In addition to the adventurous material of Mariachi del Sol, Los Ninos director Elias hopes that headliner Lucero will help attract a diverse audience. Lucero, 25, has recorded 11 albums and is "someone the kids can identify with," Elias said.

Las Perlitas Tapatias of Guadalajara--an all-female group--represent another break with the mariachi tradition.

"For years, mariachi music has been dominated by men," Elias said. "Las Perlitas are a good role model for girls. They are people who came from humble beginnings, and now they've made it and are very exciting on stage."


Hernandez and Elias also want to change the way they believe many Americans perceive mariachi musicians.

"There's always been the stereotype of mariachi musicians who just play in bars and restaurants and sing 'La Cucaracha' and ' ay-yay-yay ,' " but that's changing, Hernandez said, thanks in part to festivals and albums that have helped spotlight the musicianship and creativity of mariachi musicians.

Added Elias: Mariachis "are finally getting the respect they deserve."

* The second annual Orange County International Mariachi Festival is tonight at the Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 7. $18.50 to $56.50. (800) 882-1177.

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