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Take Five: Meet Jóse Hernàndez, Grammy-nominated founder of Mariachi Sol de México

By AMY SENK

The band Mariachi Sol De Mexico, founded and led by Newport Beach resident Jóse Hernàndez, recently was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album category for the album “40 Aniversario Embajadores del Mariachi.” Hernàndez grew up in a musical family, where mariachi had been played for generations, and he studied with the likes of Henry Mancini and Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle. You might see him at the restaurant he owns in The District, but he might be off flying around the world to play or record his music, or be busy raising money to help teach mariachi to struggling students throughout the country. I wanted to learn more, and I was lucky to catch up with him on the day between his Grammy nomination and a European working trip.

Take Five Jose Hernandez

Courtesy of Jose Hernandez

Jose Hernandez

Q: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination for best Ranchero Mariachi album! Can you tell me more about the album and what the Latin Grammy Awards mean to you?

A: It’s a nice honor. This album definitely exemplifies what Mariachi Sol de Mexico is known for. It’s an album that is very versatile. You can say that it has a traditional mariachi sound and then it has some more modern arrangements. The group is known more as a vanguard, with new harmonies and new melodies, so the concept I use for arranging the music really gives us a different kind of sound. There are some romantic songs, and there are some uplifting, very rhythmic songs. There are some new pieces I wrote also, some original pieces. It’s an album that we’re really, really proud of. The awards are given on November 17. I’ve been nominated before, but I still haven’t won. The first time they did Latin Grammys, in 2000, it was at the Staples Center, and we played at the show.

Q: What do you wish people knew about Mariachi music?

A: It’s not just a simple kind of music that you hear in a backyard or in a bar. It’s not an easy form of music to play. It’s very rhythmic. It’s very intellectual. That’s why in my restaurant in Tustin – it’s called Casa Del Sol, it’s our one-year anniversary in The District – you’ll notice the mariachi is on a stage. It’s very important for me that people see us on a stage performing. That we’re not strolling around, that kind of strolling mariachi. It’s pretty amazing when you see a 10- or 11-piece group on stage, and you’re having dinner and hearing quality music. The music is a variety. We’ll go into a classical kind of thing, then we’ll play a very traditional Mexican song, then a romantic song. We take them on a musical ride. The music is very passionate, and mariachi music is like the heart and soul of Mexico. It’s like the Mexican flag for a lot of people. It’s the music that represents Mexico more than any kind of music in the country. That’s what I want people to know – that mariachi is Mexico.

Q: Are there strict rules or a strict structure to what makes an official mariachi band?

A: It always has to have a rhythm section, which is the guitarron, or the Mexican bass, and it should have a guitar, or a vihuela, which is a small rhythm guitar, and at least one violin and one trumpet. That’s what you could call a mariachi. At least four musicians. And they wear the traje, which is the mariachi suit. It’s very traditional. This is a version of a charro, or cowboy, suit. This music traditionally has been passed on generation to generation in families. Mariachi Sol de México is 13-piece band, and for the show groups that travel and do concerts, that’s pretty much a traditional number.

Q: When did you first become interested in music and how did your career grow? 

A: My musical career began when I was about 3 1/2 and I started singing. I’m from a family that’s been playing this music for about six generations, so music has been part of our family for a very long time. I started playing in public schools when we moved from Mexico to Los Angeles. I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old because my older brothers played trumpet. They were professional musicians, so I wanted to play the trumpet also. My dad rented a trumpet for me, and I started learning in the school band and I played through high school. I played classical music and jazz. In my teen years, one of my older brothers had a mariachi band that was playing in Disneyland, about 1974 or ’75. I went and I started working there during the summer when I was about 16. It was a great job. He told me, “Jóse, all you have to learn are 12 songs. Those are the same 12 songs that all the people ask for.” And I thought, that sounds really easy. But I learned quickly that there were more than 12 songs and I had to memorize hundreds of songs. But it’s been a great experience. We’ve been able to travel the world. We’ve played in China, in North Korea, believe it or not, England, the Canary Islands, just all over the world. I composed a rhapsody – “Rapsodia para un Mariachi,” or “Rhapsody for a Mariachi” – that’s about 10 minutes long. We played it for the first time with about 180 musicians in Guadalajara, Mexico about three years ago. And I just recently went to Veracruz, and the symphony orchestra there debuted the symphonic version of my rhapsody that I orchestrated. It was really fun to go and hear my music played by an 85-piece orchestra. I flew to Prague, and on the 28th of September, the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra recorded my rhapsody, plus another piece that I wrote that was inspired by my parents and how they met. It’s a crazy story. That piece is called “Dos Almas,” or “Two Souls.” I won’t debut that anywhere until next year. 

Q: Can you tell me your thoughts on the importance of a musical education, and about your foundation, the Mariachi Heritage Society?

A: I could say that I’m one of the first generations of mariachi musicians in the genre that actually started really putting more of my personal time in teaching other kids. I remember the first job that I got in about 1980 when I was 21. I think it was Cal Poly Pomona. They had a mariachi class, and they needed somebody who understood all the instruments and who knew how to put songs together, arrange them. Somebody recommended me, and I went there and I just loved it. I loved sharing the music. And it was strange, but the other mariachi directors from other more famous groups were saying, “How come you’re teaching the music? Why are you doing that? You’re going to create a whole generation of musicians that are going to charge cheaper than you, and they’re going to take your work away.” But that didn’t bug me. I just want to share my culture, especially with young musicians who are interested in how to interpret this kind of music. Then in 1991, I started my foundation called the Mariachi Heritage Society. I still have it to this day. I remember the first 20 years, we raised a lot of money and that gave back to mariachi music education in inner cities. We would provide classes for kids who were struggling, whose parents were struggling with their income. They wanted their kids to be involved in music, so we provided these classes for them in East Los Angeles and other places, and now we are involved in 22 schools in Santa Ana and Los Angeles. We’re still going strong. And I’m also involved in starting mariachi programs, or teaching music teachers, band teachers, teaching them how to teach mariachi in schools. We’ve impacted about 37 states already in the United States. I go to a district in Nevada that has almost 8,000 kids in the mariachi programs in the schools. They support it a lot. Why? Because they’ve noticed that it’s changed a lot of lives. A lot of young Latinos that might have dropped out in high school, it’s raised their graduation rate up in the 90s. In Nashville, we started programs there. The Latino graduation rate was about 42 percent and now it’s about 94 percent. It’s been great. It’s one of my passions.

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Amy Senk is a long-time resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.