If you're into traditional Mexican music, next weekend could be your ticket to mariachi heaven.
No household names like Lucero, Linda Ronstadt or Lila Downs are scheduled to perform at this year's Tucson International Mariachi Conference, but Sol de México, considered one of the very best groups anywhere in the mariachi world, is scheduled to headline the indelible Tucson event.
Fronted by veteran musician José Hernández, the band has played and recorded with some of the biggest names in show business like Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernández, Rocío Dúrcal (all three are considered true legends), Selena and Jaguares.
Though Sol de México has been a high-profile band for decades and has toured all over the world, this will be the first time that the band will appear at the Tucson conference.
Hernández said he believes that may have something to do with El Sol's penchant for irking purists by playing, in addition to traditional mariachi music, other genres ranging from Big Band, rock ballads, classical and even Southern-fried rock staples like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
"That started a controversy which may be why for so long we did not go to Tucson," said Hernández, from his home in Los Angeles.
Hernández, who grew up in Los Angeles and says the Beatles, American pop and classical music are among his influences, has enough mariachi cred to satisfy even the most die-hard purists.
The Hernández family origins are from the Mexican state of Jalisco, known for its patriotic bent- Mexican staples like mariachi music, tequila and the aristocratic horsemen called Charros, the American cowboy's spiritual ancestors, are believed to have originated there.
His father first moved the family to Mexicali, the Mexican border town, and later to Los Angeles during the 1940s.
Back then, there were few mariachis in Los Angeles and none sang in restaurants like they do today, Hernández said.
But mariachi is now a Hernández family tradition. Four of his brothers joined Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, well-known for countless appearances in Mexican movies and considered by experts to be the best group of its kind.
Mariachis like El Sol have existed at least since the 19th century. The bands came to symbolize Mexican music after the government chose mariachi music as a way to unify the country after the Mexican revolution.
In the U.S., mariachi music has reached new heights in places like Tucson with the help of local bands and events like next week's conference.
Hernández is the youngest of eight siblings and was born in the U.S. He grew up speaking Spanish and English, and adopted both Mexican and American customs, but he says he still felt the sting of prejudice. He found solace in mariachi music.
"It was a way of defending myself," he said. He took up playing the trumpet, a core part of a mariachi group.
By 1981, he had formed a tight, cutting-edge 11-piece band called Mariachi Sol de México (The Sun of México).
Based in Los Angeles, where many big-label Latino recording artists went to record, El Sol was at the right place and at the right time.
Latino legends like Rocío Dúrcal found El Sol up to the task of recording with them on some of their most successful albums. The band also played in Juan Gabriel's "Todo," widely considered one of the best works from an artist whose almost every record is considered a classic.
Eventually, Hollywood beckoned. El Sol found itself on soundtracks for movies like "Sea Biscuit," "The Old Gringo" and "San Juan De Marco."
a virtuoso at play
Hernández believes that El Sol's array of musical influences and its knack for playing alongside artists from different genres, like Bryan Adams and Willie Nelson, has made it a better band.
"We want to show that Mariachi music is not only 'La Cucaracha,'" he said.
All of this work has brought noteworthy recognition. Vincent Bach, which makes world-renowned trumpets, recently launched a gorgeous, engraved Mariachi trumpet called the José Hernández Bach Stradivarius LR19043B in honor of Hernández's career as a virtuoso.
The band's latest CD, "La Musica" (The Music) was recorded with a symphony, and El Sol has played back-up for Shaila Dúrcal and Espinoza Paz, one of banda music's avant-garde singer-songwriters who wanted to take a stab at mariachi music.
Still, Hernández believes that one of El Sol's biggest accomplishments is gaining the respect of its peers. Recently, mariachis in Cocula, the town in Jalisco, Mexico considered the birthplace of mariachi music, paid to bring El Sol to play for them.
Mariachis in Mexico inviting an American-bred mariachi band to play speaks volumes about how far the genre has grown in the U.S., Hernández said. He says mariachi conferences, like the one that starts Wednesday in Tucson, have helped bands take their music and professionalism to a higher level.
Dan Ranieri is president of La Frontera, the Arizona-based behavioral health organization that has organized the Mariachi Conference since 1982. He says he is pleased that El Sol will not only headline the main concert, but also teach the craft of mariachi to other musicians.
While many talented mariachi bands have played at the Tucson conference, and some big-league solo artists have headlined the event in the past, Ranieri said he believes El Sol de Mexico will bring something new to Tucson.
El Sol teaches clinics and workshops all over the world and really gets into teaching, Hernández said.
And the band is ready to strut its stuff in Tucson, he says. "It will be a pleasure to share our music."
Tucson International Mariachi Conference
• What: Student Showcase concert
• When: 7 p.m. next Thursday.
• Where: Casino del Sol's AVA, 5655 W. Valencia Road.
• Cost: $10
• What: Mariachi Sol de México Espectacular concert.
• When: 7 p.m. April 26.
• Where: AVA.
• Tickets: $20-$50.
• What: Holy Mass with Mariachi
• When: 10 a.m. April 27.
• Where: AVA.
• Cost: Free.
• What: Festival Garibaldi.
• When: 11a.m.-11 p.m. April 27.
• Where: Outdoor pool area at Casino Del Sol Resort.
• Cost: $10.
• More information and tickets: 838-5593, tucsonmariachi.org
Contact reporter Joseph Treviño at email@example.com or 807-8029.