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The Next Generation Of Mariachis Are Learning From A Legend At This LA Workshop

An image of  José Hernández conducting a room full of student musicians.
José Hernández teaches students at his Mariachi Nationals and Summer Institute workshop at South El Monte High School.
(Signe Larson
for LAist)
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José Hernández is a big deal in the world of mariachi music.

He founded the mariachi powerhouses Sol de México and Reyna de Los Angeles, an all-female mariachi group. He's written and performed on 15 Mariachi Sol de México albums, and both of the groups he's founded have racked up Grammy nominations.

He's also prominent in music education as the man behind the Mariachi Heritage Society, which provides mariachi instruction for "free or low-cost."

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And he's exactly why 11-year-old Chloe Batarseh from Placentia spent a week of her summer at his Mariachi Nationals and Summer Institute at South El Monte High School.

"I wanted to come because I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn from José Hernández," she said. "He is an inspiration to kids and people who want to become someone important in the mariachi business."

Eleven-year-old student Chloe Batarseh practices guitar during a mariachi workshop class at South El Monte High School in California on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (Photo by Signe Larsen/LAist)

Though, to be clear, Hernández doesn't just go to these things as a figurehead or a celebrity appearance. He really gets into the details with the youth.

He does so because he wants the young musicians to appreciate mariachi as a challenging and beautiful art form. He compares mariachi in Mexico to jazz in the United States.

For one thing, it's an important part of the culture.

"Playing mariachi and wearing the traje de Charro - the mariachi suit - is like wearing the Mexican flag," he explains.

It's also very challenging for the musicians.

"It's not a music that says, 'Okay, you're gonna play this way. You're gonna do a staccato here. You're gonna do a slur here, like certain phrasing and accents,'" he explained. "Mariachi is very heartfelt, so if the lead trumpet player is feeling the music and plays very pretty, the second and third trumpet players have to follow his lead. They have to feel the music, just like him."

Nine-year-old student Pedrito Fregoso plays the harp during a mariachi workshop class at South El Monte High School in California on Wednesday, August 1, 2018.(Photo by Signe Larsen/LAist)
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Pedrito Fregoso, a nine-year-old from Moreno Valley, loves that improvisation part of mariachi music. (You should listen to him explain it to me in a radio piece we did for an episode of KPCC's arts and entertainment show "The Frame".)

Fregoso - who, at just nine years old sings and plays the trumpet, harp, and guitarron (think big, round, bass guitar) in addition to learning to play guitar - comes to programs like this one to find other people who like mariachi like him.

As Hernández puts it, it's a way for youth like him to learn about and celebrate their culture, together.

"It's very important for us to share our knowledge with these kids, that in some cases don't have a lot of experience," he said. "It's important for them to know where the music comes from, for them to feel proud of their culture."

Though learning the music, they're also learning life skills, like teamwork.

"When you think of mariachi, you don't think of one person," 11-year-old Chloe Batarseh explained. "You think of a whole group."

Batarseh said she wants to perform mariachi professionally when she grows up.

"I want to become a famous singer and I wanna travel all over the world, singing to people," she said.

For Hernández, that's wonderful news. Alumni of his mariachi education programs have gone on to study music, and form their groups. Some have even joined his. Others have become "lawyers, doctors, professional teachers, educators," he explained. "It's awesome."

So even if they don't pursue mariachi professionally or recreationally later in life, he said he's still proud.

"That's the whole thing behind this. It's not really to create professional mariachis. It's just for them to create a love for their music, a sense of identity," he explained. "And to have more discipline in what they do, anything else they do besides music."

A radio version of this story aired on KPCC's arts and entertainment show, The Frame. You can listen to it here.

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