At 63, Nati Cano is one of mariachi's most respected institutions. The director of Mariachi Los Camperos, he has been playing since he was 7 and today gets much of the credit for establishing the music in Los Angeles.
In September he received the Silvestre Vargas award, given by the government of Jalisco, Mexico, mariachi's birthplace. The trophy, named after the late founder of the legendary Mariachi Vargas, is considered mariachi's highest honor. It was given only once previously--to Mariachi Vargas.
Even though such recognition solidifies Cano's status as a living legend, he still radiates the enthusiasm of a rookie who just got a break. His eyes sparkle when he talks about his third annual Fiesta Navidad, a mariachi celebration of Christmas that will be held Saturday at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood.
"It will be a night of unadulterated mariachi," says Cano, noting that the program--also featuring Ballet Folklorico Ollin--will be made up of two sets, one with religious undertones and one of popular songs.
"We want to pay homage to traditions like the Posada and games children play in this part of the year," he adds. "But the main attraction is the mariachi itself. We're no longer a supporting act."
Indeed, this has been Cano's busiest year ever, and "I still have dreams," he says. "Music is a constant evolution I never cease to enjoy."
The word "evolution" may sound strange coming from one who proudly proclaims his commitment to traditional mariachi and whose work stands as the conservative opposite of the crowd-pleasing pop fusions of Jose Hernandez, Los Angeles' other major mariachi figure.
"I can't see why you can't create valuable music while remaining traditional," Cano says. "It is such a rich music."
Despite stories of animosity between Hernandez and Cano, the two have nothing but praise for each other. "I respect him as a teacher and a father," says Hernandez, director of Mariachi Sol de Mexico and musical director of the Mariachi USA Festival.
"Of course there's competition," Cano says. "But only because we both want the best for mariachi. But our paths are different. I don't want to depend on other styles to attract people. . . . [I] play pure mariachi. That's the challenge--to prove that mariachi alone is attractive."
Ironically, Cano was one of the first mariachis to experiment with pop fusions, in 1963 on the RCA album "North of the Border." It's a project he'd rather forget.
"Just like an actor always has a movie he doesn't want anybody to see, that's a record I did when I was young and hungry. But when they told me to get rid of the guitarron and put [on] some drums, I knew it wasn't right.
"The record sold well but I never promoted it. I didn't become a mariachi to play 'Hello, Dolly!' or 'Moon River.' A little change is OK, but we must keep the mariachi spirit."
He was born in Guadalajara in 1933. While playing with an orchestra in Mazatlan as a teenager, he heard about the large Mexican population in Los Angeles and became obsessed with establishing the city as his headquarters for the spread of mariachi.
He arrived in the '40s, when Los Angeles had only a handful of mariachi orchestras. In the '60s, after years of playing in cantinas, he got work at the Million Dollar Theatre downtown backing touring Mexican stars.
"The Million Dollar Theatre was the mecca," he recalls, "a place reserved only for the greatest Mexican artists. But they were always the stars and we were just accompanying them."
Still, the Million Dollar gig led to extensive touring as an accompanist, and on one of those road trips another dream was born.
"Once in Lubbock, Texas, in 1962, the waitress at a restaurant told me they didn't serve Mexicans. I was with a friend, and after a few hours, when I recovered from the shock, I told him, 'One day I will have a restaurant for everybody: white, African Americans, Chinese, Latinos . . . everybody.
"And the mariachis won't back anybody. We'll be the stars."
Seven years later, in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles, he opened La Fonda, which still attracts a widely diverse clientele for its food and music.
"What I want now," Cano says, "is for a philharmonic to invite us to play with them. We wanted concert halls for mariachi, and we got it. Now it's time to share a stage with a big orchestra. Can you imagine Agustin Lara's music with a philharmonic?"
Above all, however, he wants to set the record straight.
"When I grew up, people told us that in order to be a good mariachi, you had to play good classical music. I believe that if you want to be a good mariachi, you have to play good mariachi music. And that's what I do."
* Fiesta Navidad takes place Saturday at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Brentwood. 2 and 8 p.m. $25 and $28. (213) 825-2101.