Dec 2, 2019
José Hernández leads his Mariachi Sol de Mexico® in the annual A Merry-Achi Christmas concert on December 8 at Davies Symphony Hall. We spoke to José about this beloved highlight of the SFS holiday concert season, and about the magic of mariachi.
What are the roots of mariachi music?
There’s some French and German influence, and of course, Spanish. Europeans brought over the violin, the harp, and the guitar, and the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico learned how to play them. They then invented variations like the vihuela [a higher pitched guitar] and the guitarrón [a large, bass guitar], and they combined the Spanish influence with their own musical traditions. In all, a huge influx of different cultures has influenced Mexico’s music, but I think mariachi is the most authentic Mexican music there is!
How do you try to promote the mariachi tradition?
My family’s been performing this music for six generations now. But in addition to playing, in 1991 I started a foundation called the Mariachi Heritage Society. We teach Mexican music to young kids who can’t afford lessons. In 1994, I formed an all-female mariachi group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the first in the United States and probably in the world. They’ve made it easier for girls to form their own groups. I also teach mariachi in Mexico, in Latin America, and all over the US; I’ve helped start mariachi programs for middle and high schools in thirty-seven states. All of this isn’t work for me; I love to teach this music. And so do many of the members of Sol de Mexico, some of whom started out as students in my foundation.
Was there ever a thought that you wouldn’t follow in the family tradition?
Growing up I always thought every family in the world was a mariachi. But I wanted to be a different type of mariachi. So I studied film scoring, and I started doing a lot of orchestral mariachi arrangements. Now, when we go into a Hollywood recording studio, and we're working with Hans Zimmer or other orchestrators on movie music, it’s awesome that they look at mariachis as real musicians, not just as people who can’t read music, and just play in a backyard or in a cantina. We do play by ear, but we also read music and write it and orchestrate it.
Any surprises in store at this year’s A Merry-Achi Christmas concert?
We’ll do the Christmas classics that everyone loves, plus some pieces from our new album coming out early next year. And we’ll have a tribute to José José [José Rómulo Sosa Ortiz, who died this past September aged seventy-one], an absolute giant of Latin music. He loved hearing his greatest hits performed in our mariachi style.
What do you like most about playing in San Francisco?
Of all the venues we’ve played around the world, Davies Symphony Hall sounds the best. And we are so totally energized by the audience!
Steve Holt is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.