Natividad “Nati” Cano, the violinist-leader of the legendary, Los Angeles-based Mariachi Los Camperos, has passed on October 3rd. He was 81.
Although I’m not a huge fan of mariachi music, the first time I heard Mariachi Los Camperos perform, I remember being struck by the beauty of Nati’s sound. His was full and sweet, the equivalent of a Mexican Jascha Heifetz. I was also knocked out by the technical precision of his ensemble. I had never heard mariachi sound like this.
I read in one of the obituaries that both Nati’s grandfather and father were day laborers who also played music as a means of supporting the family. As a child, Nati exhibited such a natural inclination for the vihuela (a small rhythm guitar) that he was enrolled at the Academia de Música in Guadalajara, where he studied violin. By age 14, Nati began performing alongside his father and grandfather in small cantinas in the state of Jalisco, known as “the spiritual heart and birthplace of mariachi music.”
However, his early, formative experiences opened Nati’s eyes to the fact that mariachi were not well-respected professionally. Oftentimes, local establishments would turn their ensemble away, so he returned to his violin studies and worked as hard as any classical musician to perfect his sound.
Nati performed with other ensembles before eventually immigrating to Los Angeles in 1960 with the dream of bringing the mariachi tradition to the world stage. He should be credited with—not only popularizing but—revolutionizing mariachi, blending its traditional form with the more “complex harmonies of American and Mexican popular music.” A disciplined taskmaster, he drilled Mariachi Los Camperos (‘The Countrymen’) during their three to four hour-long daily rehearsals, thereby achieving their world-class symphony orchestra sound.
In 1969, Nati opened his own restaurant, La Fonda on Wilshire Boulevard, providing his group their own permanent stage as the star attraction, no longer backing instrumentalists or background music. Mariachi Los Camperos also donned new vibrant, bespoke uniforms and choreographed their movements onstage.
Nati, a boy from Ahuisculco, a small, rural village in the state of Jalisco, rose to world fame through his own talent, vision, and determination. A legend in his own rite, he was awarded the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship in 1989 and a United States Artists Fellowship for his extraordinary contributions in 2006. Among his extensive credits, Nati toured with Linda Ronstadt and appeared on several of her records; lectured on ethnomusicology at UCLA; and performed together with Mariachi Los Camperos at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center.
There was a tribute to him at the St. Cecilia festival and procession on Nov 25. Here is the LA Times link:
His two albums for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ¡Viva el Mariachi! (2002) and Amor, Dolor y Lagrimas: Música Ranchera (2008) are masterpieces. If you’re not a fan of mariachi, listening to these two records might help to change your mind. Here is the song that hooked me: “Flor de Azalea.” It is sonic—and mariachi—perfection!
KCET’s full-length documentary: ¡Viva La Tradición! A Tribute to Nati Cano y Mariachi Los Camperos.