Song of the south

Back by popular demand, Mariachi Sol de Mexico spices up Artown’s World Music Series

Cristobal Contreras of Mariachi Sol de Mexico performs with passion.

Cristobal Contreras of Mariachi Sol de Mexico performs with passion.

Wingfield Park

300 W. First St.
Reno, NV 89501

Sonic styles issue from Mexico’s borders as if projected from loudspeakers, emphasizing that music remains one of the nation’s prime cultural exports.

Setting aside pop exemplars Julio and Ricky Iglesias, Ricky Martin and even Selena for a moment, the consummate sound of Mexico has been recognized and embraced around the world thanks to ambassadors of a more “traditional” sort: Musicians honing forms such as conjunto, ranchera, corrido and, of course, mariachi. The latter claims rank as the style that most epitomizes Mexico, even while standing next to equally thick veins of musical custom.

This year Artown’s World Music Series, which is held at Wingfield Park on Wednesdays during July, presents groups from Scotland, Venezuela and Jamaica. Mariachi Sol de Mexico will strum the final note, closing with strains of traditional Mexican music already familiar to downtown Reno.

Mariachi Sol de Mexico, a 13-piece ensemble that includes six violins, three trumpets, three guitars and a harp, played for a packed audience last July at Wingfield Park. Artown executive director Beth Macmillan brought the group back for a rare second invitation.

“We seldom program a group more than once,” said Macmillan. “Mariachi Sol were so good, though, and so many people were happy to see them last year, that we felt compelled to do it. After their performance, we heard a lot of feedback from people in the community who said that they were disappointed to have missed the show. We kept hearing,‘When are they coming back?’”

Native sons

Pop is not the only musical genre pleasing the masses. For José Hernandez, band leader of Mariachi Sol de Mexico, it is easy to remain relevant, even out of pop’s range. When asked his thoughts on contemporary Mexican music, Hernandez’s reply was short and polite. “I’ve heard that Latino pop has been growing and becoming more diverse.”

Even though he supports his daughter Melody’s efforts in her role as part of the crossover girl band trio Runway MMC, Hernandez keeps his own eyes trained on the traditional music of his country and family.

“I formed Mariachi Sol de Mexico in 1981, but my family has been playing this music for six generations,” said Hernandez. “Mariachi music is at the heart and soul of Mexico. It is a music that is very passionate when played at a high level.”

The subtext to that statement is that with every performance, Hernandez honors both family and nation. The feeling of responsibility inherent in representing a country and surname could weigh like an albatross, but Hernandez has no trouble operating at such a level.

Having spent the greater part of his life as a student and composer of mariachi music, he has grown into an artist and craftsman. The handful of musical history clenched in his trumpet fist has earned him two Grammy Award nominations for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album.

Hernandez and his 12 Mariachi Sol band mates have performed and recorded with musicians such as Jose Feliciano, Willie Nelson, Linda Rondstadt and Lola Beltran. Hernandez has also written several musical scores designed to assist conductors and musicians with the interpretation and play of traditional mariachi.

That is all just icing, though. Hernandez is equally pleased by the daily responsibilities of running yet another family business. Based out of Los Angeles, Mariachi Sol has at least one bankable venue in the cutthroat City of Quartz. Cielito Lindo is a restaurant owned and operated by the Hernandez family.

“We’ve had that place for 25 years. The restaurant is open six days out of the week, and Mariachi Sol plays there five of those days,” said Hernandez.

Mariachi are often journeymen by nature, relaying the soul of Mexican history through song, haunting any place where their music is appreciated. From neighborhood restaurants where ballad requests are taken table-side, to presidential ballrooms where Charro suit buttons are polished within danger of melting, Mariachi Sol has always put its music before thought of venue.

Even with four presidential performances under its collective belt, the group remains willing to share its talent with all who listen attentively. Artown’s Macmillan testified to that fact. “What’s really great about Mariachi Sol de Mexico is that they are amazing musicians, but also incredibly accessible,” she said. “When they performed in Reno last year, they did some great crossovers, like ‘New York, New York,’ mariachi-style.”

Southern roots

As a branch of “roots” music, mariachi has grown relatively fast. Born in the state of Jalisco during the 19th century, and fed by political mayhem, rapid social change and assimilation of culture that would break the backs of lesser art forms, this music of the people has continued to earn audiences who use a common music vocabulary, regardless of whether or not they speak the Spanish language.

Hernandez holds a deep respect for the musical tradition of which he is a part and is grateful for the opportunity to lead future mariachi by example. “We’re a very, very fortunate group,” he said. “Mariachi Sol de Mexico has set a standard for other mariachis. This group is very stable, very consistent—a tribute to Mexico’s most romantic singers, such as José José.”

Artown has always covered world music, but Macmillan said that this year, event planners specifically sought out a Latino crowd favorite.

“When we book a cultural act, we want to make sure that the artist that we bring is someone that the Reno community is interested in,” said Macmillan. “This year, we wanted to bring an act that would celebrate Hispanic culture. When we offered a list of potential artists, Mariachi Sol appeared first on the list of priority.

“We love to engage the Latino community because they are such important locals,” added Macmillan. “We want to program in such a way that there is something that they want to see.”

Annalise McKenzie, Artown development director, added that the World Music Series aims to include crowd pleasers as well as musical forms less familiar to locals.

“There are two important goals of the World Music Series,” said McKenzie. “One is to put a spotlight on cultures that already exist in this community, and the other is to introduce Reno to those that don’t represent large numbers.”

The series has what Macmillan calls a “tiny, little theme going” with its programming of Latino music. It may be a small thing that makes a significant difference in drawing more Renoites to Wingfield Park this summer. Nevada Hispanic Services estimates that Washoe County is almost 20 percent Hispanic.

As Mariachi Sol de Mexico prepares to celebrate another summer in Reno, band leader Hernandez is confident that the experience will be intimate and borderless. While acknowledging that mariachi music is a distinctive representation of Mexican culture, he can’t help blurring the line between musical styles. “In many ways, listening to a mariachi band is like sitting in on a chamber orchestra.”