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Mariachi in His Marrow

A Gringo With a Flair for 'Volver, Volver'

August 31, 2003|ABEL SALAS

It was your typical music biz coming-of-age story. Up to a point. Fifteen years ago, Matthew Stoneman finished high school and left New Hamphire for Los Angeles. Like countless other singers in the making, he worked his way along the Sunset Strip from waiter to lounge entertainer, but then Stoneman kept heading east, and he didn't stop at the bridge into Boyle Heights. The rest is crossover history.

"I lived with a Mexican family for a while," says Stoneman. "And there was just something about the music." At first, he just picked up a song or two in Spanish for parties. But things snowballed, and a couple of years ago he decided to test himself playing for tips at Olvera Street. "Mateo" hasn't looked back since.

Today, the self-described "gringo mariachi" is an Eastside musician to the bone, snagging pickup gigs at street corners with the best of them. Stoneman is a fixture on sidewalks from downtown's bustling Broadway business district to Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park. In restaurants and nightclubs, on buses and under open skies, the East L.A. resident unleashes his melancholy tenor vibrato and near-perfect Spanish pronunciation on everything from traditional Mexican lullabies to latter-day "narcocorrido" ballads with drug smuggler heroes.

Fair-haired and slightly rumpled in a checkered shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, Stoneman projects the persona one might expect if a south-of-the-border Dean Martin met Gene Autry in a Mexican film starring legendary crooner Pedro Infante. "Sometimes, I'll say a wrong word or whatever and people start laughing," he says, referring to some unintentionally off-color serenades.

Keeping time with percussive right-handed slaps on the hollow body of his six-string guitar while strumming with his left, Stoneman will break into the classic "Piensa en Mi" ("Think of Me"), a tune often associated with the Trio Los Panchos, whose songs figure prominently in Stoneman's set list. He sometimes offers his own twist on pop culture with a rendition of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" in Spanish.

Stoneman says his self-released Spanish-language CD sells about 80 copies a week. But the real payoff is validation from the folks who count, says Stoneman, winner of more than one mariachi singing competition. "I go to places like Lido's--they have a contest every Monday night," he says. Wowing 'em in a South Gate dance hall for serious fans of regional Mexican music means more to him than all the records he could ever hope to sell.

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