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Mariachi

Grammy-nominated Jose Hernandez carries on a long-standing family tradition

» “I’m a fifth-generation mariachi. I never had a plan B.”

» The 52-year-old Hernandez has been playing professionally since he was 15. He leads the ensemble Sol de México, which performs at arts centers and arenas worldwide and at Cielito Lindo, a restaurant he owns in South El Monte.

» “When my mother was upset at my father, she would teach me songs that would have a message for my dad like, ‘You broke my heart—why did you do this to me?’ and have me sing them to him.”

» Hernandez’s first show came about by happenstance. At a Disneyland gig featuring his brothers, one of their musicians didn’t show up and his brother asked him to step in. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what these guys are playing.’?” Soon after, he was appearing regularly with his family.

» Sol de México is a 13-piece group. Traditional ensembles once consisted of a guitar, harp, violin, vihuela (a small, deep-bodied five-string rhythm guitar), and a guitarrón (a large six-string acoustic bass). Beginning in the 1950s, most groups added two trumpets and two or more violins.

» Hernandez plays trumpet, violin, guitarrón, and vihuela. He has composed, arranged, and provided music for 15 Sol de México albums and has received four Grammy nominations.

» In 1998, Hernandez took part in a concert at Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi that was attended by 450 musicians. “Some locals didn’t want us to perform. They felt threatened that we were playing in their territory and did everything humanly possible to try to block us.” But fans summoned Sol de México to the square. “I told them, ‘I’ll give you a two-hour show for free.’ They were totally blown away.”

 » “In Mexico the mariachi for many years was the lowest of the low. The word was even used in a derogatory way: ‘You mariachi, you idiot.’ From this side of the border we’ve tried to change that.”

» Sixteen years ago Hernandez founded Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the first all-women’s group of its kind to land a recording contract. “I told them, ‘I want you to be the first group men are blown away by.’?” The band has shared stages with Vikki Carr, whose songs bridge U.S. and Latino cultures, as well as Latin American singers Guadalupe Pineda, Miguel Aceves Mejía, and Lucha Villa.

» Hernandez’s repertoire totals about 500 songs, many of them standards like “Guadalajara” and “El Son de la Negra.” But they also include “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” “A lot of the mariachis say, ‘This guy’s the Antichrist.’ But I’m just entertaining. You don’t have to be a purist.”

» The music is often sentimental, and sometimes Hernandez becomes emotional. “There is no wall between me and the audience. If it’s a lyric that makes me cry, I cry.”

» Sol de México went to North Korea in 2003 for the country’s Spring Festival. “They really felt the passion of our music through the melodies and phrasing, even though they didn’t understand Spanish. Kim Jong Il became a big fan of ours.”

» Hernandez likes to update the traditional mariachi look with bright colors. One of his outfits is a pistachio green suede suit topped by a two-tone green sombrero with silver-colored embroidery. He changes as soon as possible after performing. “I can’t take the tight pants.”

Photograph by Dustin Snipes