Like rockabilly, classical and boy bands, mariachi is a genre in which innovation is not only discouraged but also shunned. Newer mariachi tunes are usually tone poems for wimps in which a man tearfully begs a woman not to go. Definitely not macho. Most mariachi bands, therefore, concentrate on a repertoire drawn from songs that are 80 (the revolutionary corridos) or 40 years old (songs from the golden age of ranchera) or anything Vicente Fernández or Antonio Aguilar (or the sons of Fernández and Aguilar) has ever sung. Such songs are perfectly suited to mariachi's purpose: to get drunk and express Mexican pride. But mainly to get drunk. Attempts to introduce new mariachi songs are usually disastrous and make a mockery of everyone involved. Consider the performance a few weeks back in that most Mexican of cities (at least busboy-wise), Newport Beach.
The mere thought of mariachi music at Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club is hideous; the reality was no different. The club's website, indifferent to rules of Spanish grammar, advertised the Friday fest as a "Muy Buenos Noches!" complete with "a handsome caballero" and "a buffet of all your south-of-the-border favorites." But perhaps the deepest cut was the choice of performers: José Hernández's Mariachi Sol de Mexico, a group notorious for its mariachi remakes of such Mexican standards as "California Girls" and "New York, New York."
We were seated next to a blue-eyed Spaniard named Raúl who spent the night charming my date. There were other Mexicans in attendance—though they were mostly the guys in black pants and white shirts.
Sol de Mexico? More like Sol de Madrid. The night belonged to Anglos and Spaniards. Sol de Mexico's performance was as mild as the club's salsa. Most of their songs were interactive: like German-Americans doing the chicken dance, audience members were encouraged to clap along in time, punctuate choruses with "Olé!" (a Spanish expression?), or grind to the music as if they were at the Boogie. At times, the handsome members of Sol de Mexico would venture out among the tables to serenade white women. While introducing the members of his group, Hernández pointed out that two did not know English but quickly added that they are learning; the audience was delighted.
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Although Sol de Mexico played several traditional Mexican tunes, the loudest cheers went to English-language songs—a Glenn Miller melody that wowed the bluehairs and a version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (both insults to the memory of José Alfredo Jiménez).
At show's end, Raúl the Spaniard said goodbye to my date by hugging her and planting a kiss on her cheek. "A hug and a kiss from a man! What did you get?" she asked, seemingly daring me to give her the same.
"Ringside seats at the rape of Mexican culture," I said. And I wonder why she's not my girlfriend.
Mariachi Sol de Mexico perform at the Pacific Pier Plaza, Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1657. Sat., 1 p.m. Free. All ages.