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Cano and company make a joyful case for serious mariachi

The Ann Arbor News

The nine musicians of Los Camperos de Nati Cano didn't need a translator to be understood during their concert at Hill Auditorium Friday.

Anyone who understands the range of human emotion took something away from the performance by the world's premier mariachi band, even if they didn't take in every word.

The setting was Ann Arbor, but the spirit was clearly south of the border, as the band led a guided tour of Mexico's geography and history during a two-and-a-half-hour show that ranged from joyous exuberance to plaintive yearning.

Featuring two trumpets, four fiddles, Mexican harp, guitarron (six-string bass guitar) and Cano on Vihuela -a five-stringed rhythm guitar - the band sounded at least twice as big as the sum of its instruments, blasting out a brassy, rhythmic musical stew that whipped the University Musical Society crowd into frequent shouts of "Olé!''

Cano said his life mission is to bring mariachi - traditional Mexican music - to classical audiences in the same way that jazz has found legitimacy with fans of "serious'' music.

"It's been my dream to play concert halls,'' Cano said. "And here we are ... in this beautiful auditorium.''

Fortunately, reaching that goal hasn't taken the joy out of his music. On Friday, band members performed loosely choreographed dance steps and good-naturedly played to the audience for approval.

While most of the repertoire was unfamiliar to untrained ears - this pair included - it was obvious just how much of the mariachi repertoire has seeped into American culture.

Even with the welcome absence of "La Bamba'' - Cano said it is to Mexican music what a chimichanga is to Mexican food - much of the set list featured familiar refrains popularized in everything from movie westerns to hockey games.

But even at its most exuberant, the band's virtuosity was never far from the forefront. Powered by subtle yet forceful bass lines, harmonized trumpet charts and syncopated violin arrangements, nearly every song featured at least one moment of jaw-dropping instrumental or vocal brilliance.

Many of those moments arrived courtesy of Musical Director Jesus "Chuy'' Guzman, whose rich, expressive singing powered several of the more than two dozen numbers, frequently breaking into falsetto to extend phrases beyond their expected resolution.

But, while he was eager to give over most of the musical fireworks to other musicians, it was clear that Cano's charm and wit and enthusiasm have kept the band at the top of the peak. He has that rare ability to bring genre music to the mainstream not only through technical ability, but also through sheer force of personality.