As an art form, mariachi music has long been relegated to the back of the bar or the corner of a wedding reception. But that is starting to change.
"For 200 years, European music has dominated concert halls, even in Mexico," said Nati Cano, musical director of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, which will break with tradition Sunday by taking center stage at Fiesta Navidad, a celebration of Mexican music and dance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
The show, sponsored by the center and the Orange County Philharmonic Society, is a presentation of the various celebrations of Las Posadas, a traditional Mexican Christmas fiesta that marks the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
Last year Cano and his mariachis performed as part of the Philharmonic's international series. Their performance was so "extraordinarily popular" that the society invited them back. This time, it's for a stand-alone event, independent of a subscription series, said Dena Montiel, marketing director of the Philharmonic Society. She added that the society hopes to turn Fiesta Navidad, which is sold-out again, into an annual event.
In addition to Cano's mariachi group, the event will feature Mariachi Tlaquepaque, dance troupes Ballet Folklorico Olin, Ballet Folklorico de UCLA, musical group Conjunto Hueyapan and roper Tony Munoz. The 40 musicians and 30 dancers will take the audience to various regions of Mexico via their performances, Cano said.
But make no mistake: Mariachi music will play a dominant role. And Cano, who is doing the musical arrangement and choreography, could not be happier.
"There's more to this music than 'La Bamba' and 'Cielito Lindo,' " said Cano. "I see this music as a serious art form. It's not just a means to make a living, which is fine. But I hope to show just a little more" of what mariachi music is about.
"It's just like with Mexican food," Cano said. "I say, 'Do you know Mexican food?' and people say they do. But if I say, 'Do you know about \o7 mixiote \f7 (barbecued lamb wrapped in leaves) or \o7 chiles en nogada\f7 (stuffed chilies in walnut sauce)?' they say, 'What's that?' And I say, 'You don't know real Mexican food.' If you go to Mexico and ask for a burrito, they say, 'What is that?' "
Cano says that when people seek more than a superficial knowledge of mariachi music, they will encounter its deliciousness, its beauty and its complexity and be hooked for life.
When it comes to food analogies, Cano, 61, knows of which he speaks. He is owner of the popular La Fonda de Los Camperos Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, where members of Los Camperos frequently play.
His knowledge of Mexican music runs even deeper. His father and grandfather were musicians, and Cano joined his first mariachi band when he was 14. The Jalisco native moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and founded his Camperos (which means "travelers") four years later.
One sign that mariachi music was finally beginning to get more respect came in 1990, when Cano was awarded a $5,000 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Cano and his Camperos also were one of four mariachi ensembles that collaborated on Linda Ronstadt's 1987 best-selling album "Canciones de Mi Padre," and they also appeared on her 1991 follow-up "Mas Canciones." In return, Ronstadt co-produced the group's 1992 album, "Canciones de Siempre" (PolyGram Latino).
Cano, who also is a lecturer at UCLA, believes in the social responsibility of musicians and in the power of music. While he is happy that he and his Camperos will perform at the Performing Arts Center, he quickly adds that "to let mariachi music take center stage is a great responsibility."
That responsibility includes educating the public in general and, in particular, Mexican and Mexican American youths who may be heading in the wrong direction with their lives, Cano said.
Upholding tradition, including that of mariachi music, can help the youths find their way. Tradition is important, he said, "not as a way of life, but it should be there."
He added: "I hope the young kids will understand, through the music, that they should be proud of themselves. We should be proud of being here, in this beautiful country, but we should also be proud of where we came from, because it's who we are too."
* \o7 Fiesta Navidad will be presented Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive. Costa Mesa. 3 p.m. SOLD-OUT. Sponsored by the center and the Orange County Philharmonic Society. (714) 553-2422.\f7