Cultural connections: Grammy-winning group Mariachi Los Camperos partnering with OKC Philharmonic for Pops performances
When Sergio Alonso and his bandmates in Mariachi Los Camperos typically take the stage, they number a dozen players, the standard mariachi lineup of his harp, six violins, two trumpets, a guitarron bass instrument, a vihuela rhythm guitar and a guitar.
When the Los Angeles-based ensemble takes the stage Friday and Saturday night at the Civic Center, they will be joined by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic with about six times as many classically-trained musicians.
"Over the years, we've had the opportunity to present this music with orchestra, and it's outstanding. It's just a different kind of beauty, a different kind of power," said Alonso, who has been the group's harpist for 23 years.
"You are sharing the stage with outstanding musicians, very well-trained musicians, and you're also operating in a world that's very different than a lot of the performance context where mariachis exists. ... History has stated that the mariachis went from playing in bars and more of settings that weren't attributed to high-art music, so now that you have musicians that can perform well and be able to read music ... and be on stage, deservedly so, with orchestral musicians, it's a responsibility.
"But in an ensemble like Mariachi Los Camperos, I think that's exactly where the group needs to be, to demonstrate that mariachi music transcends cultures, it transcends performance contexts."
OKC Philharmonic Music Director Alexander Mickelthwate said he is eager to share the stage with Mariachi Los Camperos as he conducts the Pops series concerts.
"They're extremely high-polished, first of all, and amazingly in sync. Then to do this together with the philharmonic will be a real treat," he said. "I want to connect a little bit more with the Latino and Hispanic community in Oklahoma."
Natividad “Nati” Cano founded Mariachi Los Camperos in 1961, and three years later, his group became the first mariachi ensemble to perform at Carnegie Hall. The band collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on her 1987 landmark album “Canciones de Mi Padre” and the 1992 sequel, “Mas Canciones" and toured with the singer nationwide.
"Nati Cano really set the stage in terms of raising mariachi music to a higher art form. He definitely was innovative within the parameters of tradition ... integrating, for example, the woman into the mariachi, which he was the first to do on a professional scale," Alonso said of Cano, who died in 2014.
Since 1992, the ensemble has been under the direction of Jesus "Chuy" Guzman.
"I remember being a kid in college and going to see Mariachi Los Camperos and just being like, 'Wow.' Just the way they carry themselves on stage, it's just very different than you might see in a different context," said Alonso, who is chairman of the music department at San Fernando High School in his native California.
"It's presenting the music to different audiences, different contexts, and one of which, of course, is the performing arts center, the concert halls, integrating traditional Mexican music with Western art music and really serving almost as a microcosm ... to how music exists throughout the country, throughout the world now. You have fusions of different cultures."
The two-night Oklahoma City stand will be their first shows since the ensemble won a Grammy last month for Best Regional Mexican Music Album with "De Ayer Para Siempre." It was the third Grammy win for Mariachi Los Camperos.
"In Mexico now there are a lot of popular musics that have really kind of overshadowed mariachi music ... and they're all part of the same category. ... When they call our name, it's pretty humbling to not only represent this institution since, oh gosh, 1961 but also represent mariachi music as a whole," Alonso said.
"It's also been not only educating people from a different culture, from a different country, but even educating people from Mexico who have these stigmas on mariachi music. ... A lot of the innovations and transformations of mariachi music, interestingly, have emerged in the United States among Mexican, Mexican-American, non-Mexican musicians."
For Mickelthwate, who hails from Germany, it has been interesting delving into the connections between mariachi music and his homeland. In the 19th century, Maximilian I, younger brother of Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, was monarch of Mexico.
"He brought to Mexico polka bands ... that then created this whole breeding ground for creativity and that's now what we have and what we call here mariachi music," he said. "It's really interesting that mariachi is so utterly Mexican, but there's this whole connection when I'm listening to it. There are many similarities to Southern German music, to polka bands, to yodeling."
For Alonso, teaming with orchestras gives Mariachi Los Camperos a chance to foster cross-cultural understanding.
"In the United States, I know these are definitely difficult times for a lot of different communities, and what better way than art, what better way than music to really bring about that understanding, that communication, via something so human as music.
"That is in line, again, with the ideology that Nati Cano left us with ... that we really be all-welcoming for people to experience our music — not only the Mexican, not only the Mexican-Americans or even Latinos, but everyone to experience mariachi music."
Mariachi Los Camperos with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker Ave.
Tickets and information: 842-5387 or www.okcphil.org.