Last year, when Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles was invited to open for the reggae-hip-hop- salsa-punk-funk mash-up mavens Ozomatli at the Nokia Theatre, the group wondered how on earth such a concert might be billed.
"At first I was, like, 'Really?'" recalled Julissa Murillo, a violinist with the neo-traditional, all-female mariachi group. "Nobody has ever tried anything like that, and I didn't know how they were going to categorize it."
"Categories be damned!" could be the unofficial slogan of Sunday's Hollywood Bowl concert, "¡Viva Mexico!". It will reunite Ozo and Mariachi Reyna in a lineup that also includes the bands Calexico and Banda Lluvia des Estrellas, the one-man techno wizard known as Mexican Institute of Sound, the globe-hopping L.A. DJ-producer Cut Chemist and Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet, among others.
To be sure, at one level the program's genre-scrambling dance card is designed to prompt some casual chin-stroking about what the term "Mexican music" means these days, particularly in a multicultural metropolis like L.A., and its place within the broader contemporary pop music spectrum.
But at the dance-floor level, where much of the multiethnic crowd likely will end up, the concert's raison d'être is to throw a monster party honoring Mexican Independence Day (officially Sept. 16) as well as L.A.'s multifariously Mexican-inspired music scene.
Playing tour guide
"What we want to do is celebrate Mexican music in Los Angeles, and I think it's oftentimes not realized or not fully realized that, 'Oh, the roots of that music are Mexican,' " said Johanna Rees, senior program manager for the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Rees said that high-concept concerts like Sunday's can divert audiences in ways that go beyond mere entertainment. At the same time, she emphasized, "I think the bulk of the fans are just there for the immersion experience. They come to check it out because they know they're going to see something at the Bowl they're not going to see anywhere else."
Exhibit A: Special guest Cheech Marin, who'll act as "a little bit of a tour guide," leading into the Ozomatli segment, Rees said.
"It's going to blow peoples' minds," said Raul Campos, who grew up in East L.A. listening to cumbia, ranchera, mamba and mariachi and now spins all types of music as a program host on radio station KCRW-FM, a sponsor of the Bowl's Word Music concert series.
"I'm taking my mom," Campos continued, "because I know she's going to dig it. She loves banda, she loves ranchera, but she's going to love Ozomatli. I'm looking forward to seeing her reaction."
For many of the performers, mixing traditional Mexican music with other varieties will simply be business as usual.
Ozomatli fans know that among the polyglot 14-year-old band's many godfathers are '60s East L.A. Chicano-rock pioneers such as Thee Midniters. Ozo members also have collaborated with Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and other seminal bilingual acts.
Wil-Dog Abers, Ozo's bass player, who describes himself as "white Jewish — but only from the waist down," said he first was exposed to Mexican and other Latin music through his parents' friends while growing up in the Central American enclave of MacArthur Park. Initially, he admits, the music's charms were lost on him. "I had a girlfriend in high school, and that's all she was into, and I hated it."
But he rediscovered the sounds after a long Bay Area sojourn. And when he witnessed a mariachi tuba player using his instrument to crank out bass lines, he was hooked.
Now, when he's not playing for Ozo, Abers sometimes can be found playing traditional regional music from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Zacatecas with Banda Lluvia des Estrellas, also on Sunday's Bowl bill. His nickname, "El Gavachillo," means "little white guy." Thanks to Abers, banda strains now get folded in with other Ozo members' interests, including hip-hop and tabla, to create the group's characteristic slam-dance sound mix.
Hard to classify
"I feel like such a cheeseball when a cabdriver or somebody is asking me, 'What kind of music do you play?' and I don't know what to say," Abers said.
In fact, that revelatory feeling of upending expectations can prove to be an epiphany, said Joey Burns, vocalist-guitarist of the proudly unclassifiable Tucson-based band Calexico. "People kind of love seeing that transformation occur on stage, and without having to explain, the way you would in a classroom or some kind of program. It's just felt. That's the best way to learn about a culture."
Speaking by phone from Europe, where his band is touring, Burns said he recently witnessed a mariachi band perform to an enthusiastic crowd at a wine festival in downtown Hamburg, Germany. Increasingly, he said, U.S. musicians and their followers are recognizing Mexican music as part of the U.S. sonic tapestry, like the blues or Jewish folk tunes.