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For These Boys, Huasteco Music Has Just Come Naturally

December 19, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Conjunto Macuilxochitl. Say it five times fast!

Or, if you have trouble with one time slow, try "Herrera brothers."

However you refer to them, they're four boys from Fillmore, Calif., specializing in huasteco music of eastern and central Mexico. They appear Saturday in Costa Mesa as part of "Fiesta Navidad," the Philharmonic Society of Orange County's annual mariachi Christmas show. (Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano and Ballet Folklorico Ollin get star billing.)

According to Jorge Herrera, the boys' father and huasteco teacher, one time slow would sound like con-HOON-toh ma-kweel-choh-CHEET, with a silent final L. Macuilxochitl is the Aztec god of music and dance; huasteco music features fast-paced syncopated sones with complicated strumming rhythms.

Too complicated for kids?

"Not for my kids," said Herrera, a bank-loan consultant by day who specializes in the jarocho music of Veracruz.

"The beauty is that they love to do it," he said. "It's like picking up a baseball glove and teaching your sons to play catch. You pick up a book and read; they pick up a book. You pick up an instrument; they start playing and take it from there. I haven't found any difficulty in teaching them."

For traditional Mexican repertory including the jarocho music favored by their father, Jorge Andres, 15, plays requinto jarocho (a plucked, four-string guitar-like instrument) and violin. Luis Albino, 13, plays jarana (a strummed, eight-string guitar-like instrument) and huapanguera (a thick-bodied guitar-like instrument). Miguel Antonio, 11, plays guitar and jarana, and Juan Pablo, 9, plays jarana.

But the children play lots of other types of music too. The two older boys successfully auditioned this year for the New West Youth Symphony in Ventura, both in the violin section; both play trumpet in the Fillmore High School jazz band, and Jorge Andres also plays trumpet in the marching band. All of them, as well as Jose Marcelino, 7, and Rebeca Isabel, 5, take piano lessons.

And that's not all.

"They're into baseball; they're into track, karate, the swim team, everything; it's unbelievable," Herreras said. "But the piano they have to practice every day. That's a prerequisite before they do anything else. One practices in the morning before school. They get out of school at staggered times, so another startsat 2 p.m.; another practices when he gets home; the oldest practices at night.

"The fifth boy, who also plays jarana, is complaining he's not in Macuilxochitl--he'll probably play at Orange County. The baby girl is complaining even more. She says, 'I sing, I dance, I'll carry the instruments!' "

Herrera's wife, Oralia, is a real estate agent and schoolteacher and somehow gets the children to all their lessons and sports activities.

Just about all the relatives are involved with music. Herrera's brother, Fermin Herrera, is a jarocho musician (who teaches pre-Columbian history at UCLA and Cal State Northridge), Fermin's college-age sons are jarocho musicians and his daughter Ixya has released an album of rancheras and huapangos.

Jorge Herrera described Christmas with the Herrera clan:

"We all get together at my parents' in Oxnard, nine of us children, six boys and three girls, and all the nephews and nieces and cousins . . . Musically, it gets pretty wild. Everybody plays an instrument."

Jorge Andres Herrera, who turned 15 on Tuesday, described a birthday with the immediate family:

"My brothers woke me up at 6 o'clock in the morning with all their instruments and played 'Las Mananitas' [a Mexican birthday song]. That was very early."

* What: Fiesta Navidad.

* When: Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m.

* Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Bristol Street exit and heat north. Turn right on Town Center Drive.

* Wherewithal: $10-$38.

* Where to call: Ticketmaster, (714) 740-7878.

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