Natividad (Nati) Cano with his vihuela, an instrument he learned to play at age 6. From age 8 to 14 he studied violin at the Academy of Music in Guadalajara.
In 1987, his mariachis backed Linda Ronstadt on Canciones de Mi Padre and the follow-up Mas Canciones. More recently, he has recorded three albums on Smithsonian Folkways, winning a Grammy this year for Amor, Dolor y Lagrimas. He lives in SoCal, near Santa Barbara. He and his band will be back on the East Coast in June, performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C. One of the three festival themes this year is "Las Amerícas: Un Mundo Musical/Music in Latino Culture."
These mariachis are a national treasure, and Linda takes obvious delight in being ensconced in the traditional Mexican music she grew up with. She can still belt out memorable high notes, lovely long sustains reminiscent of her pop hits, and emotional breaking notes native to the ranchera idiom. Not that bravura vocal performance seemed to come completely effortlessly to her anymore (if it ever did--Ronstadt has always been a careful, even cautious performer; I noticed she had a velvet-draped computer monitor discreetly placed center stage as a lyric prompter, and some kind of remote device in her hand). While I found some of her renditions of classic rancheras flawless, others were darn good or just ok (her "Gritenme Piedras del Campo" was one of the latter, for me, but I'm partial to Cuco Sanchez' interpretation). What makes her an authentic performer nonetheless, and one people really enjoyed hearing at Merlefest, is not really the fact that she came out of this Mexican tradition, but that she returned to it with the American-made craftsmanship of her own particular sound, based in pop, folk rock and retro '50s balladry.
Linda's sets were broken up by songs highlighting the other singers in Los Camperos (pictured above). When you factor in that all these guys play violin at concert level, as well as being outstanding singers, their talent is truly tremendous. I chatted with Jesus "Chuy" Guzman (right, obscured by violin) backstage, he has been with Nati Cano the longest and also serves as his musical director. These mariachis seem very proud of what they do; with good reason.
Eight fantastic dancers from the Ballet Folklorico Paso del Norte, based in El Paso, Texas, added dollops of color to the program.
"You should never separate dance music from the dancers. When you do it gets fast and stiff and weird," said Linda. "It's when we all started dancing to recorded music that it got weird."Interesting opinion from someone who made her name during the era of recorded dance music as the highest paid woman in rock. Linda's friend Emmy Lou Harris, who performed at Merlefest the night before, was in the house (and walked right by me, so I'm told--I must have had my back turned!) as was her long-time producer John Boylan, whom a fan spotted backstage.
Only three photographers were allowed on this platform at a time, and only during her first three songs; we had five minutes each on the platform, we were also supposed to keep our camera lens below stage level (pretty much an impossibility, but we obediently sank to our knees). I'm not sure why Linda has so many rules for photographers, honestly it just made it comically difficult to get good photos of her. A real crap shoot!
Camperos vocalist Ismael Hernandez. He gave a special smile for the cameras, below, which is one of my favorite shots from the show.
(click on photo to see larger).