Jose Hernandez is always on the go in the name of mariachi. He’s an arranger, composer, educator, engineer, mixer, musician, producer, trumpeter, and keeper and preserver of mariachi culture, heritage and tradition. That’s the short list for the Los Angeles-based globetrotting mariachi maestro.
“The world doesn’t seem to be paying attention,” Hernandez told Billboard, referring to the lack of attention mariachi gets. However, “it’s a genre that’s still strong around the world.”
For his latest album, Leyendas de Mi Pueblo (Legends of My Land), Hernandez and the group he founded in 1981 decided to dive deep into the music of Mexican legends such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Miguel Aceves Mejía.
The album also includes homages to Alfredo Jiménez, Javier Solis and Vicente Fernandez. The six extended tracks feature medleys for each legend as part of a project that has deep meaning for Hernandez.
“I recorded these musical homages in gratitude and dedicate the new album to each of them, as well as to my parents, siblings and the fans who allow me to fulfill my mission,” Hernandez said.
A fifth generation mariachi born in Mexico, Hernandez is a walking encyclopedia for his musical passion. In fact, he wants to open a museum someday to store some of his mariachi collectibles, such as a zarape that belonged to Negrete.
Hernandez, who is also the founder of the all-female mariachi outfit Reyna de Los Angeles, studied with Frank Sinatra’s songwriters, including Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini. He also teaches his art through the Jose Hernandez Mariachi Nationals and Summer Institute, an intensive competition attracting top student ensembles.
“I have all these musical tools …. that I implement and give mariachi music a twist,” the mariachi composer said. “If you don’t have the essence of a mariachi song it becomes a fusion and it’s not mariachi. It’s important to be respectful of the original composers.”
In fact, in the late ’90s when Hernandez worked with the Beach Boys on the album Acapulco Girls, he did not allow the word “mariachi” to appear anywhere on the album because the mariachi tradition was broken and the original packaging simply reads, Sol de Mexico.
“We were using drums, the electric guitar and a keyboard,” Hernandez recalls. “My father would roll over in his grave.”
Just a handful of years ago, Hernandez was approached about performing at Lady Gaga’s 25th birthday party with Mariachi Sol de Mexico at a downtown L.A. bar. Before agreeing to perform, the mariachi bandleader wanted to ensure that the mariachi group was going to be respected.
“I asked if it was a serious thing,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t going to do it if it would make us sound like idiots. Oh, and we had 48 hours to prepare for Lady Gaga.”
The performance required Hernandez and the band to learn some Black Sabbath along with other favorite songs, including “Born this Way.”
“Adam Lambert was sitting next to her,” said Hernandez, who had a clear view of the pop singer’s table. When the mariachi music came on, they were like, “WTF… we also did something from Kiss. She’s an amazing talent. I’m a big fan.”
Watch Lady Gaga and Jose Hernandez’s Mariachi Sol de Mexico perform a mariachi version of “Born this Way” and check out the mariachi bandleader and the band perform a selection from Leyendas de Mi Pueblo below.
“Leyendas de Mi Pueblo” selection here: