El Centro harpist performs at the Latin Grammys

EL CENTRO — Behind the scenes of the Latin Grammys on November 17 in Las Vegas, a son of the Imperial Valley tuned the different strings of his harp before taking the stage to perform with superstar Marco Antonio Solis of the famous band “Los Bukis.” , who later won the Latin Grammy for Person of the Year.

Guillermo “Willie” Acuña, an El Centro native currently living in San Diego, has been playing the harp professionally for José Hernández’s world-renowned Mariachi Sol de México, considered by many to be one of the best mariachis in the world. Acuña has been part of the Sun of Mexico since January 2008.

On records recorded since 2008, Acuña has played the harp and recorded with the various renowned artists Sol de México has recorded for, including Vicente Fernández, Alejandro Fernández, Pepe Aguilar, Luis Miguel, Ana Bárbara, Aida Cuevas and Ángela Aguilar. , among others.

Around the same time, José Hernández’s Mariachi Sol de México has been nominated for approximately 11 Grammy Awards, eight Latin Grammys and three American Grammys, since 2007, according to Sol de México founder and director José Hernández, and grammy.com.

In addition to playing at the Latin Grammy’s, Acuña travels the United States, Mexico and the world performing with Mariachi Sol de México, giving harp “clinics” for music conferences and school districts by invitation, and also teaching harp through a non-profit association at Santa Monica College and its alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles.

“It’s work for me,” Acuña said during a brief break from the tour, visiting family in El Centro. “I get it all the time, you’re going to be (here) or you’re going to fly to (there) or you’re playing in Los Angeles, how come you didn’t say anything? I’m like I don’t know, for me it’s just work”.

Before moving to San Diego, Acuña lived in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles for 19 years. During that time he entered the Mariachi Teacher Apprenticeship Program, under the tutelage of his now colleague in another professional mariachi, harpist Sergio “Checo” Alonso.

“It’s weird because I took my music courses while at Sol, so I would also be on the road with Sol writing papers for UCLA once I transferred (from Santa Monica College),” Acuña said.

“All the musical things I was doing were easy, it was just (applying) the discipline that I didn’t have before I learned while in Sol,” he said. “I would arrive early, sit in the front and ask questions because if I didn’t ask I would make a mistake, so discipline was maintained in my (college courses) as well.”

Acuña earned her BA from UCLA in Ethnomusicology, or the study of non-Western cultural music, with an emphasis in ethnographic research, in 2017.

Earlier, Acuña moved to Van Nuys, California in the summer of 2002 to “continue learning mariachi” after graduating from Southwest in June.

He began playing music at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in El Centro in fifth grade with his first instrument, the trumpet. With an extended family that were musicians, Acuña said his first music teacher was his cousin Pablo Orozco. He received his first guitar, a requinto, as a gift from his uncle, Arturo ‘Turie” Duarte, a longtime Brawley musician, in seventh grade.

Although her immediate family loved Mexican music, none of them played a musical instrument, Acuña said. Although her parents and grandparents often listened to Mexican music in their homes, it was a famous movie that sparked his fascination with mariachi music, and specifically the harp.

“I saw the movie ‘La Bamba’ when I was in fourth grade, and in the Tijuana scene Fermín Herrera was playing the harp with Los Lobos,” Acuña said. “After that, my mom bought me her album, ‘La Pistola y el Corazón,’ and that’s what got me into the game, a bunch of Chicanos from East Los Angeles playing all this Mexican music.”

“I really got into son jarocho and son huasteco because of that, and I started to really appreciate what norteño music was,” Acuña said. “For me it was always between the harp and the accordion, so I thought I would try the harp and I fell in love”.

Acuña joined his first mariachi, the Calexico-based and now-defunct Mariachi Cascabel, precursor to the original Mariachi Mixteco, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at Southwest that Acuña began taking harp lessons, he said.

His third harp teacher, Valentín Caballero, of the local Mariachi Amanecer, said he “knew (Acuña) was going to go far.”

“He was always quiet and very methodical. I thought he was scared at first, and then he gained confidence,” Caballero said in Spanish. “He was always disciplined and studious.”

“The truth is that I expected no less from him,” Caballero said. “Besides the fact that his parents were very supportive of him, probably because they saw his ability.”

Former mariachi idol turned Acuña boss José Hernández said Acuña is “definitely a strong point for us, musically speaking with Sol de México.”

“We’ve only had three harpists and Sol, with Willie being the third,” Hernández said.

“We are going to teach in many places in the United States and sometimes in Mexico, and the harpists know who (Acuña) is,” he said. “When they take a class with him, everyone is excited and it’s great to see that.”

Although they have yet to win a Grammy, ironically, Sol de México has more than a few instances where they have been nominated in the exact same category with musical artists, singers, for whom they recorded the mariachi music on the artist’s album, competing effectively against themselves in certain categories, Hernandez said.

For example, in 2022, where Acuña and Sol de México performed on stage with Marco Antonio Solis for the Latin Grammys, Solis was nominated for his album “Qué Ganas De Verte” in the same category with “40 Aniversario Embajadores del Maraichi” from Mariachi Sol,” Hernández said.

In 2006, Mariachi Sol recorded on Luis Miguel’s album “México en la Piel” and they faced him in the same category: Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album, with his own album “25 Aniversario”, which Luis Miguel won. , according to Hernandez and grammy.com.

Regardless, Hernández said that Mariachi Sol de México is happy to perform at the Latin Grammys and accepts the artists they work with to perform with them at the awards show.

“The reason we’re involved is because artists ask us to support them and because we believe in supporting the recording industry and our peers,” Hernández said. “We have been nominated so many times, we do our part to support. It’s a beautiful thing to be nominated.”

“I think that Sol de México right now is at one of its strongest points right now, not only instrumentally but vocally,” added Hernández. “Everyone sings and it’s a very powerful group.”

Even before joining the group, Mariachi Sol de México had a long history of visiting and performing in the Imperial Valley, said Hernández, who has roots in Mexicali.

Although Mariachi Sol will not be performing at El Centro in December 2022 as has been the custom in recent years through the Imperial Valley Community Foundation, Hernández said he would love to reconnect with the Jimmie Cannon Theater, looking forward to future collaborations with the Valley Symphony.

Acuña also said that he would like to “give back” to the Imperial Valley through workshops for local school mariachis and other local mariachis, to which Hernández accepted that is a possibility.

It is also a beautiful thing, perhaps, that Acuña has been able to be part of all these impressive instances because she followed her musical dreams; Having been partially inspired by enjoying concerts at age 6, he later participated in mariachi workshops that Mariachi Sol de México held in the early 1990s at the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta at Imperial.

“This is the best job in the world,” Acuña said of being a mariachi and music educator. “It has its ups and downs like any job…but I have to remind myself that this is what he wanted as a kid.”

“I’m living my childhood dream and getting paid to do it… and I’m also doing what I went to school to do, I studied ethnomusicology and now I’m teaching mariachi… who’s to say that?” he said.

“I think 6-year-old Willie would be excited to know that he would go this far and that my parents would support him and be very proud,” he said. “He is also part of them; I am here for them. I give all my Grammy medals, awards, Billboard stuff and all the accolades to my mom and they’re here at my mom’s house (in El Centro).”

“I wish I could go back and tell my 10- or 12-year-old self that we’re going to get that far,” Acuña said. “Don’t worry so much, but keep practicing.

“What a wild ride,” he said.

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El Centro harpist performs at the Latin Grammys