Mariachi band serves up holiday fiesta

The Capital Times

Nati Cano, the vihuela player and leader of Mariachi Los Camperos, is probably the only performer ever to grace the Overture Hall stage that worried about "sombrero head."

"It messes up my hair," said Cano about the traditional broad-brimmed Mexican hat. "I asked my manager if I had to wear it tonight and he said, 'You must. It's tradition.'"

Mariachi's musical traditions, as well as the performers' sombreros, played major roles in the nine-member ensemble's performance before more than 900 fans Friday. The nonet's superb musicianship raised an enthusiastic response from its multicultural audience, many of whom recognized many of the songs from their opening notes.

The group's "Fiesta Navidad" mixed tunes traditional and familiar, as well as melodies appropriate to the season, few of which failed to receive enthusiastic responses. It's a tribute to Overture officials for having recognized Madison's growing diversity in their programming. The appearance by Mariachi Los Camperos, a Madison first for the Los Angeles-based ensemble, apparently was an event for which the city's burgeoning Latino community had been waiting.

The two-hour performance was a festival of sound and color, much like mariachi music itself. Based on a folk music form that developed in the western Mexican states of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan, Nayarit and Sinaloa, mariachi is Mexico's only true surviving folkloric musical idiom. Mariachi Los Camperos has raised the standards of that music to an art form that nonetheless attracts a wide following of admirers, many of whom turned out for Friday's performance.

The musicians, arrayed across the stage, each with his own microphone, performed dressed in the traditional traje de charro, consisting of the familiar embroidered waist-length jackets and tight-fitting wool pants slit at the ankle to allow for riding boots, the uniform of Jalisco horsemen. The aforementioned sombreros, spectacular in their circumferences, came off after the first few numbers to allow the musicians freedom to move about the stage and, in some cases, the auditorium. Colorfully dressed dancers made frequent appearances.

Cano's vihuela, a guitar-like instrument with a rounded back, was one of the ensemble's mix of traditional mariachi instruments. The lineup also included a guitarron, (a large, rounded acoustic bass guitar), a folk harp, two trumpets and four violins. Early mariachi bands were primarily string ensembles. In 1930, trumpets were added as more bands began performing on the radio.

The unusual mix gives mariachi bands its distinct, often joyous sound. In Mariachi Los Camperos' case, the musicians' virtuosity gives the Grammy-winning ensemble a more polished, professional sound.

This was never more apparent than during the group's performance of the familiar "It's Impossible." A lone trumpet carried the melody while the four violinists, who had repositioned themselves throughout the main-floor auditorium, supplied sweet harmonies. The effect was captivating.

"That was based on a Mexican melody," said Cano to an applauding crowd.

In keeping with mariachi traditions, virtually all nine members provided vocals throughout the performance as well as playing. Performances ranged from suave, romantic boleros to the more aggressive son jalisiense to the huapango, characterized by its use of falsetto and movement among different musical registers. The voices were as sweet and accomplished as the instrumental performances and, in some cases, more so.

Mariachi Los Camperos may have served as a holiday fiesta for Madison's Latino community, but it also opened up a new musical form to others. One best appreciates an art form by contemplating the performance of its best practitioners. If Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano did nothing it else, it raised the level of appreciation for Madison music lovers, instances of "sombrero head" notwithstanding.