Natividad “Nati” Cano, Grammy award-winning mariachi leader and former director of the Music of Mexico Ensemble at UCLA, died of colon cancer on Oct. 3 at his home in Fillmore, Calif. He was 81.

Cano played a major role in bringing mariachi music from local cafes and cantinas in Mexico to concert stages all over the world, from Disney Hall to Carnegie Hall and beyond. The group he founded, Los Camperos de Nati Cano, performed at the White House on several occasions. Los Camperos was awarded a Grammy in 2008 for Best Regional Mexican Album for their CD “Amor, Dolor Y Lagrimas: Musica Ranchera Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano” (Smithsonian Folkways, 2008). Cano was the recipient of an NEA National Heritage Fellowship.

Cano’s legacy is strongest however, in his efforts to pass the mariachi tradition to young people. He directed the Music of Mexico Ensemble at UCLA as a lecturer from 1989 until 1995 and was a visiting assistant professor from 1995 to 2000. He also created San Fernando’s Mariachi Master Apprentice Program with Sergio Alonso, a former UCLA ethnomusicology student, which resulted in the creation of the award-winning mariachi youth group, Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando.

“Nati became director of our student mariachi back in 1989, and he put our mariachi program into high gear for many years, and in a very special way,” said Steve Loza, vice chair of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s Department of Ethnomusicology and a professor of ethnomusicology. “Nati Cano was a genius in innovative concepts, musical virtuosity and entrepreneurship. We will miss him dearly, but may God bless him forever.”

In 1989, Loza recruited Cano and Juan Manuel Cortez, who was the musical director of Mariachi Uclatlán, to teach the “Music of Mexico” class at UCLA. The move was a monumental one for the mariachi movement.

"For UCLA, bringing Nati Cano in to teach during the 1990s to resurrect the mariachi ensemble at UCLA introduced his style of traditional mariachi to the university setting, and has therefore been instrumental in training a new generation of mariachi musicians across the U.S.,” said Lauryn Salazar, a former member of Mariachi de Uclatlán, a student group that was started in the 1960s. She is a UCLA alumna and now an assistant professor of musicology at Texas Tech University. “For me personally, he opened a lot of doors for my research and musicianship. He was gracious with his time, and I am forever grateful for his mentorship.”

Guzman, artistic director of Los Camperos and Cano’s assistant while he was at UCLA, succeeded Cano as instructor of the UCLA Music of Mexico class from 2000 to the present. He said, “…el mundo del mariachi ha perdido un gigante” (the mariachi world has lost a giant).

In June, Cano accompanied Jesus Guzman, UCLA lecturer in ethnomusicology, and Mariachi de Uclatlán on a trip to Havana, Cuba, where they led a workshop with local mariachi groups and gave a public concert at the Casa de Las Americas. In preparation for the performance, he mentored the group, advising members on playing technique and style.

“He never missed a beat; whether in rehearsal or in a conversation, Nati was always ready with some musical advice, a life story, and of course, a joke,” said Jessie Vallejo, a violinist who received her Ph.D. from UCLA this year. She is the current co-director with Guzman of Mariachi de Uclatlán. “Nati's passion for not only mariachi music, but for living life to its fullest — always with a smile — was evident throughout our trip. It was truly a blessing to learn from such a giant.”

This has been excerpted from an obituary posted on the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology website.