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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

Accent on Mexico

Music Performances Honor Latino Heritage, Benefit Education

September 26, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In case you haven't heard--and chances are good that you haven't--September is Hispanic Heritage Month. An official proclamation should, perhaps, be unnecessary. After all, Latino heritage is deeply rooted in the Golden State.

But despite the weight of demographics and history, evidence of Latino cultural heritage remains comparatively inconspicuous. It is too often ignored by mainstream media.

Two concerts in the county this weekend represent Southern California's Latino heritage from different angles. The L.A.-based Mariachi Sol de Mexico, founded by "fifth-generation mariachi" Jose Hernandez, has been gaining in popularity on both sides of the border, encouraging the current mariachi renaissance. The Ojai-based Perla Batalla is a Mexican-American singer who grew up in Santa Monica, worked with Leonard Cohen and k.d. lang and, as a solo artist, insists on blending pop material with Mexican tunes.

However divergent in style, these musicians share common cultural ground. Hernandez is bringing mariachi toward the mainstream, and Batalla is pushing Anglo pop southward.

Both concerts are benefits for academic causes. Mariachi Sol de Mexico's performance at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza benefits the scholarship program for Latino students at Pepperdine University, while Batalla's concert at the Oak Grove School in Ojai benefits that private school's scholarship fund.

In this age of dwindling resources, Batalla is drawn to educational fund-raisers, particularly those that raise money for art. "Without music or art in classrooms, my life would have been very bleak," she said. "I would have been pregnant at 13, or something would have gone very wrong. I lost myself in that world and it saved me."

Education is also essential to Hernandez and his group. Hernandez runs the nonprofit Mariachi Heritage Society, which boasts nearly 700 students in Los Angeles County and provides instruments and teachers. The students "form little mariachi bands in their schools, and sometimes I showcase them in shows that my group does. It gives them a sense of pride in where they're from."

And education will play a part in Hernandez's upcoming Thousand Oaks performance, which takes the form of a brief history of mariachi, the music that originated in Jalisco early in the century and has gained considerable momentum in recent years. With the concert format, he said, audiences "see the real traditional side and the colorful dances and how the music evolved, from the most traditional performance of mariachi music to the more up-to-date mariachi. It's in Spanish and English, and people see all sides of mariachi music."

Hernandez gave a phone interview from Mexico City, where his group was enjoying a hectic promotional tour of concert and television appearances. "They're listening to us," Hernandez said, "and because my family is from Jalisco, they feel proud that we're from the United States and that we're promoting their music."

Hernandez, who composes and arranges for his 14-piece group, has no false modesty about their impact. "I think in the last 10 years, actually, [the mariachi scene] has taken off a lot more. It's become a bit more harmonically sophisticated, and I think it has a lot to do with our group. With our recordings, it has obligated other groups to either hire other arrangers--not necessarily mariachis--sort of to keep up with us. We've influenced a lot of the mariachi movement."

If mariachi is getting belated respect, there are still lingering misconceptions about the seriousness and sophistication of the music. "Some people only see one side of the coin," Hernandez said. "They think that it's just background party music, for Cinco de Mayo, or two or three musicians in a restaurant, and that's it. But mariachi can be just as sophisticated as a symphony orchestra."

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Mariachi Sol de Mexico has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and in other classical settings, as well as having recorded for the EMI-Latin label. "For the albums that we do, I do a lot of original stuff, which is basically hard-core mariachi, the stuff you hear in the bar and the cantina," said Hernandez. "We also do 'New York, New York' and Elvis tunes and Glenn Miller stuff.

"Any kind of music that we play, it sounds authentic in the style, yet it's with a mariachi instrumentation. It's adaptable music because of the instrumentation. You have the bass, the guitars that are rhythm guitars, and the violins and trumpets that have that attack. It can be very romantic, and it can be very exciting."

Batalla, like Hernandez, came from a musical family, though of a different sort. Her father was a singer who ran a record store in Santa Monica specializing in Mexican music and also worked as a DJ.

As a child, Batalla was exposed to Mexican music on a daily basis, and she also followed her interests in rock 'n' roll and classical music, particularly opera.

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