By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Grammy-winning mariachi bandleader Nati Cano, who stirred American audiences with the folk sounds of his native Mexico and played a key role in helping to teach young people how to play the music, has died at age 81, a bandmate said on Saturday.
Cano died on Friday at a hospital in Fillmore, California, after a long battle with cancer, said the bandmate, Sergio Alonso.
Born in 1933 in a rural town near Guadalajara, Mexico, Natividad "Nati" Cano grew up with the mariachi music his family of day laborers played in their spare time.
The traditional folk music is centered on the sounds of violins, trumpets, guitar and two guitar-like instruments unique to Mexico, the vihuela and the guitarron.
His father taught Cano to play the vihuela, and he later went to an academy to learn the violin before dropping out to join family members in entertaining patrons at cantinas.
In 1960, after having moved across the U.S. border to Los Angeles, he joined a mariachi group that he would later come to lead and rename Los Camperos, which translates to The Countrymen.
Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, as the band has been known, went on to use a Los Angeles restaurant called La Fonda as their home base where they performed regularly. They toured with singer Linda Ronstadt to promote her 1987 album "Canciones de mi Padre," and were one of several mariachi bands Ronstadt relied on to make the recording.
Cano was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2008 he and Los Camperos won a Grammy Award for best regional Mexican album for their release "Amor."
Alonso, in a phone interview, called Cano the most important figure in popularizing mariachi music in the United States.
"He epitomized the band leader, he was stern but he was fair. He was also very idealistic and he really romanticized mariachi music," Alonso said.
Cano also played a key role in helping to start a number of mariachi education programs in public schools in the Southwest United States.
"In Mexico, if you're thinking about education, about mariachi, yeah, you can find good mariachi there," Cano told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2008. "But as far as education for the kids to learn, they're kind of behind a little bit."
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Frank McGurty and James Dalgleish)