Alejandro Fernandez, one of Mexico's most popular performers, finds himself at a loss for words when he comes across Americans unfamiliar with his work. At chic places like Hollywood's Mondrian hotel, where he has stayed while on tour, people ask him what kind of music he sings.
"That sort of leaves me, like, 'Wow, what should I tell them?' " said the 36-year-old singer and actor, son of mariachi king and cultural icon Vicente Fernandez.
The quandary of this simple question reflects the nature of Fernandez's two-pronged career, shifting between glitzy pop and earthy rancheras. And it points to an even more perplexing challenge facing popular music in Mexico today.
Nicknamed "El Potrillo," or Young Buck, Fernandez became famous by following in his father's mariachi footsteps, specializing in that rousing ranchera style that embodies the national identity as much as tequila and ancient pyramids. But almost as soon as he had established himself as a major star in the genre with the 1995 flamenco-tinged hit "Como Quien Pierde una Estrella" (Like Losing a Star), Fernandez made a sudden switch to Latin pop music that shocked mariachi purists and disappointed his father, who warned that he shouldn't turn his back on the folk music that made him famous.
"My father and my fans didn't get it at first," says the dashing singer and actor, who appears at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas tonight on the eve of Mexican Independence Day. "It was hard for them to understand that I wasn't rejecting Mexican music, I was just looking for the opportunity to open new markets in another style. It's only been in the past two years that they began to finally accept it."
The strategy has paid off, judging by the success of his current tour in support of his latest pop album, "Viento a Favor" (A Favorable Wind), which includes a duet with Beyoncé titled "Amor Gitano" (Gypsy Love), one of the album's standout tracks. Last weekend, Fernandez performed for more than 15,000 people over a three-night stand at the Gibson Amphitheatre, his biggest solo engagement at the venue in his 15-year recording career.
His show is divided between pop and mariachi. How he handles this balancing act on stage -- and how the audience responds -- only serves to spotlight his artistic predicament.
Fernandez insists that he does not intend to abandon the traditional music of his home state of Jalisco, where he and his father are based. Yet he hasn't released a mariachi album in four years. His ranchera set focuses primarily on old standards ("Guadalajara"), his father's hits ("Volver, Volver") and his own more recent material.
Sadly, he says, mariachi music is in danger of extinction. Record companies no longer want to invest in the type of music that dominated the Mexican market for most of the 20th century. Even Mexican radio stations don't want to play the music anymore.
"It's evident that we're going through a crisis in Mexican music right now," he told me before the show. "I can't achieve the same international projection with ranchera records as I do with my pop albums. So it's very difficult to continue to insist on that style" within the industry.
But if mariachi music is dying, somebody forgot to inform the fans at the Gibson last week.
Yes, they were entertained during the opening pop segment by the singer's cosmopolitan alter-ego, dressed snazzily in a white vest and white patent leather shoes. But as soon as he reappeared in his classic charro outfit after a break, the place exploded in joyous screams.
Nobody today wears the mariachi costume with such pride and panache, not even his father. The singer's dark good looks are seen as so quintessentially Mexican that he was chosen by filmmaker Alfonso Arau to star as the lead character in his 2004 film "Zapata," though he had no acting experience.
The sight of Fernandez last Friday in full folkloric regalia -- silver clasps lining his pant legs, large sombrero held aloft in a graceful salute -- drove the crowd wild. They sprung to their feet and didn't sit back down.
The reaction was so powerful that the mariachi segment was expanded in subsequent shows Saturday and Sunday.
So how can a dying breed of music create such a stir?
It's part nostalgia and part patriotism, of course. But more than anything, the appeal can be found in the old-fashioned craft of songwriting, with memorable melodies and moving lyrics that touch listeners, even those who don't speak Spanish. Fernandez's pop music may open commercial doors, but his mariachi songs hold the key to the soul.
It's a shame the music industry isn't tapping this popular musical force and its most compelling contemporary exponent. If it did, it might be able to restore some of the international influence it enjoyed during the music's golden age, during the middle of the last century.
Fernandez says he understands why rancheras don't sell now in other Latin American nations: It's not their native music.
But that's an empty excuse, considering how readily Latin American fans accept English-language rock and pop, even ape it without knowing the words. The problem is that Latinos throw up cultural walls to keep one another out -- and keep themselves from growing.
Fernandez says he even met resistance when he tried to modernize Mexican music, adding pop touches and the occasional foreign flair, such as the flamenco feel of that first hit and his irresistible 2001 follow-up, "Tantita Pena" (A Little Pain).
"It was difficult," he recalls of the early criticism. "In Mexico especially we can be very close-minded. People are very nationalist when it comes to all things cultural. So it took a lot of work to silence the purists, to demonstrate to them what the music needed. Because every genre in every other country was changing, but ours was the only one that had to stay pure."
The singer's Gibson show proved one more thing. Unlike pop, mariachi music is not perishable. "I don't see myself doing pop music as I get older," he says. "The day my father retires, I'll pick up the baton from his hands with much honor, gallantry and big britches [con muchos pantalones] to continue taking Mexican music to the world."
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The sounds of mariachis
Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts at MacArthur Park, 5 p.m. Sunday, followed by Dr. Bobby Rodriguez Latin Jazz Orchestra. www.levittpavilionlosangeles.org
Mexican crooner and son of ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar in concert, Friday and next Saturday, Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk. www.hob.com
16th Annual San José International Mariachi Festival
Weeklong festival of workshops and performances, Sept. 24-30, featuring Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos in the Noche de Serenata Gala Concert, at 8 p.m. Sept. 29 at San Jose State Event Center. www.mhcviva.org
Fiesta Mexicana V
Mariachi Nuevo Cuicatlan, Mariachi Cielo Nuevo, Middleton Street School Folklorico and more in a celebration of Mexican culture, 7 p.m. Sept. 29, Ford Amphitheatre. www.fordamphitheatre.org