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Styles That Move Freely Over Borders

Pop music: Ranging from Glenn Miller to the Beach Boys, Mariachi Sol de Mexico refuses to be bound by tradition.

May 03, 1997|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Jose L. Hernandez, leader of the acclaimed Mariachi Sol de Mexico, may have said it a thousand times before, but when he took the stage Thursday night at a packed Galaxy Concert Theatre, he said it one more time for good measure.

"Many people think that mariachis are four panzones [fat guys] in a cantina singing tired old songs," he said before launching into the group's second encore number. "But the mariachi [musician] of today is man of letters, a composer of classical music as well as traditional music.

"For those of you who think mariachi has its limits, this one is for you." What followed was a medley of Glenn Miller swing era classics seamlessly threaded together with the catchy big-band horn sound created by a four-man trumpet section and accentuated by seven bouncy violins. By the end of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo," a roaring crowd was on its feet swinging.

It's Hernandez's bold innovations in the 200-year-old Mexican folk music that have made him a leading force in mariachi's renaissance and its evolution on both sides of the border.

It's no wonder Beach Boy Mike Love called Hernandez and his group to record a track with the fabled California band. The invite reconfirmed Hernandez's conviction that he was doing something right with Mexico's best-known traditional-music style.

His 14-piece orchestra arguably is the country's best mariachi, not only because of its solid mariachi foundation, but also because of its trend-setting fusion with contemporary pop.

This week, Sol de Mexico returned to the recording studio after touring for two months. Hernandez and the Beach Boys will collaborate on a new version of the group's 1988 hit "Kokomo." They're also talking about doing a Mexican-ized version of "California Girls."

"We thought that if 'California Girls' is the local anthem for women here, we'd change the lyrics a little to reflect where the most beautiful women in Mexico are," Hernandez, 38, said.

Can you sing: "I wish they all could be Acapulco girls"?

"Working with the Beach Boys," he said, "is the best of Mexican flan and American apple pie."

That's just one example of how Hernandez takes mariachi into territory where no mariachi group has gone before. Since forming in 1981, Sol de Mexico has become as well known for its rendition of "New York, New York" as for its performances of mariachi legend Jose Alfredo Jimenez's compositions. Sol de Mexico goes further yet, offering spins on music of Bach and Leonard Bernstein that have earned Hernandez the title of maestro among mariachi and classical composers around the world.

"You have to have more musical knowledge to imitate our music than you'd need for any other mariachi," Hernandez said earlier this week by phone from his South El Monte restaurant, Cielito Lindo, where Sol de Mexico plays six nights a week when the group isn't touring. "Little by little we are showing the versatility of our music."

Mariachi Sol de Mexico returns to play July 27 at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, formed by Hernandez as the first all-female mariachi ensemble, will also perform that day.

"People see Sol de Mexico as filling a cultural gap between Latinos and non-Latinos," said Hernandez, who besides directing the orchestra is its trumpet player and one of its singers. "We can serve mariachi with champagne as well as with tequila."

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Hernandez, a fifth-generation mariachi player whose five brothers also are mariachi musicians, dismisses criticism from purists who say mariachi music should not stray from its 2-century-old tradition.

In the last 10 years, he said, mariachi music has gained in popularity and has become more harmonically sophisticated. Hernandez believes that mariachi's musical progression has a lot to do with his group.

Hernandez helped arrange the music for Linda Ronstadt's 1987 Spanish-language album "Canciones de Mi Padre." He has four numbers on the soundtrack for the movie "Don Juan DeMarco" and produced two songs with Mexican American pop star Selena before she died.

Sol de Mexico recently recorded Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" with Campbell, Michelle Shocked, Freddy Fender and Sheila E. for a track on Hollywood Records' scheduled June release of "Loung-a-Pallooza."

The group is working on its third album for EMI Latin, which is due to be released in August, and will record with Tejano superstar Emilio Navaira and Mexican pop group Los Mismos.

"These are artists that approached us," he said, "and who want to work with mariachi."

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