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Nati Cano was one of the most visionary mariachis anywhere. His famed Los Angeles-based group Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano performed at some of the top venues around the world, winning new fans while satisfying old fans. He long believed that the best mariachis belonged in concert halls rather than cantinas.

His connection to Tucson was strong. He performed and recorded with Tucson-born Linda Ronstadt, whose 1997 album “Canciones de Mi Padre” did more for spreading mariachi music across the country and the globe than any other recording.

Cano lent his talent and time to the Tucson International Mariachi Conference after its inception in 1983. Cano attended the mariachi conference nearly every year as a maestro, leading and teaching the young musicians. Los Camperos also performed at the festival.

In 2010, Cano attended the conference, the same year he celebrated his 50th year as a mariachi. That year in April, I wrote a column about the affable Cano, who died Oct. 3 at his California home.

This reprint of the 2010 column is for Nati:

There are mariachis, and then there is Nati Cano of Los Angeles.

There are few mariachis alive, whether in Tucson or Los Angeles or Mexico, who have contributed as much to the development and popularization of mariachi music as Cano. Today, as he has for every year except one year, Cano and his Mariachi Los Camperos will perform at the 28th annual La Frontera Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

But Friday’s performance will be special: Cano will celebrate 50 years as a mariachi.

“It took us 50 years of collaboration to reach the quality of music we have,” Cano said during a recent interview.

The quality of Cano’s mariachi musicianship is widely recognized and appreciated. In 1989, Cano received the National Heritage Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of this country’s highest honors paid to artists.

Cano began his professional career as a child growing up in Jalisco, near Guadalajara, considered the birthplace of mariachi music. His father and grandfather were mariachis.

In 1951, Cano moved to Mexicali, where he directed Mariachi Chapala. By 1961, he was in Los Angeles as the head of Los Camperos. In Los Angeles, he wanted more than to bring mariachi to a wider audience.

“I wanted to invade the concert halls of the United States,” said Cano, 77, who in 1963 performed in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Just as important as performing in concert halls instead of cantinas, Cano brought professionalism and a higher quality of musicianship. It’s a goal he continues to pursue.

“Mariachis everywhere have to improve their quality and professionalism,” Cano said.

To that end, Cano has long been involved in educating young mariachis. He plays a leading role in the student instruction component of the Tucson festival.

Cano said that by instilling professionalism in their music, the students will gain respect and discipline.

“That’s the legacy for the students.”

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@tucson.com or at 573-4187.


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