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Celebrating the Mariachi Month of May : Music: Natividad (Nati) Cano and several groups will perform during this weekend’s three-day festival in Santa Ana.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For almost 28 years, Natividad (Nati) Cano has been striving to elevate mariachi music to an art form.

The style is, perhaps, the best-known strain of Mexican music. And Cano, who has become a legendary figure among mariachi ensembles in Southern California, will join several groups this weekend during Santa Ana’s three-day Cinco de Mayo Mariachi Festival. Food booths open today with mariachi groups performing on Saturday and Sunday.

“Understanding mariachi music is like food. American food is not only hamburgers and hot dogs. Just like Mexican food is not only tacos and enchiladas. There’s a lot more to mariachi than people realize,” Cano said.

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Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Cano, 58, has spent more than two decades as musical director of Los Angeles-based Los Camperos, the house band of La Fonda Restaurant, which is owned by Cano.

But it wasn’t until Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre” album in 1988, subsequent concert tour and PBS television special, for which Los Camperos backed her, that the public got a sophisticated glimpse of what many had believed was confined to the cantinas and barrios.

“Mariachi isn’t about singing requests to a drunken guy in the street with a bottle of tequila in his hand who yells at you, ‘Play “La Ranchita”!’ I haven’t spent 28 years of my life to bring mariachi to that level.

“You must be able to play what the average Mexican wants on a Sunday afternoon. But you also have to have the experience to play, say, the old standards that someone like the consul of Mexico would like to hear,” he said.

And in mariachi circles, the saying goes, “If you can’t play it, then you’re not that good.”

The festival is free to the public and will be downtown on 4th Street. Police barricades will cordon off 4th Street for five blocks from Broadway to French Street.

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Mark Fogelquist, one of the festival coordinators, is excited about this year’s event. Fogelquist is also musical director of Mariachi Uclatan from the El Mariachi restaurant in Orange.

Fogelquist and his brother, Jim, have been among the leaders in Orange County in giving mariachi music a suitable stage. They began as a student group at UCLA, where they got the group’s name, and have evolved into one of Orange County’s best. Since 1981, they have played in El Mariachi restaurant, which is owned by the Fogelquists and other longtime band members.

In the last few years, the group has added a harp and two violins. For the festival, the group has been practicing “America,” a new song by Juan Manuel Cortes, Uclatan’s arranger. It is a medley of pieces from South America and even includes a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

One of the festival highlights will include a mariachi Mass on Sunday for which Mariachi Uclatan will perform just a few blocks from 4th Street at St. Joseph’s Church, 727 Minter St. The Mass, with Msgr. Jaime Soto officiating, begins at 10:30 a.m.

In addition to Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Fogelquist said the performers will include two other Southern California groups: one headed by Jose Hernandez, an innovator in mariachi music; the other by Hernandez’s brother, Pedro Rey. Before organizing his Los Galleros in 1970, Pedro Rey had performed with Los Camperos and with Mexico’s undisputed leaders, Mariachi Vargas.

Having the bands of each brother at one site--a rare occurrence--will be a “special occasion,” said Jose Hernandez, 32. Hernandez, a respected and innovative arranger, last year came up with a mariachi version of “New York, New York,” and also a rap song the group played at the Hollywood Bowl.

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Joining the four groups will be Mariachi Estrellas de America, and the student group, Mariachi U.C.L.A. Two folklorico groups, Relampago del Cielo Ballet Folklorico and UCI Ballet Folklorico will also perform.

Unlike last year when the festival debuted, no solo singers will perform this year, said coordinator Florinda Mintz of Fiesta Marketplace. With a budget ceiling of $12,000 for 12 hours of music, adding soloists would have taken away the festival’s focus on mariachi groups, she said.

Mariachi Festival 1991, sponsored by the Downtown Santa Ana Business Assn., will feature performances on Saturday and Sunday on two outdoor stages, on 4th Street at Sycamore and at French streets, from 3:45 to 7 p.m. Admission: free. Information: (714) 647-6556.

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