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Tierra del Mariachis: Music of Mexico

Tierra del Mariachis: Music of Mexico

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The history of Mariachi music is rich, complex, and significantly interwoven with the history of Mexico itself. Indeed, for most Mexicans, Mariachi is Mexico in musical form. The name Mariachi conjures distinctive imagery for anyone who has heard of it outside of Mexico. The iconic charro suits, the guitarrón, the brass sections, and a festive atmosphere of alegría (joy) often come to mind.

Mariachi band playing at a restaurant outdoors

Many foreigners may also find themselves humming one of several recognizable tunes without ever knowing the song’s name. The upbeat tempo of El Jarabe Tapatio (Mexican Hat Dance), the mournful melody of Canta y no Llores, and the joyful notes of Jesusita en Chihuahua are well-known in Mexican pop culture.

La Bamba is perhaps the most well-known mariachi tune due to its mainstream popularity by Richie Valens and Los Lobos. Such facts and features have achieved universal recognition but are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Origins of Mexican Music: 

Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica utilized rattles, drums, flutes, and horns made from conch shells for religious festivals. Spanish colonizers brought many new instruments, such as violins, guitars, harps, and varieties of woodwinds. They also introduced the style of musical groups, usually some combination of violins, harps, and guitars. Colonial ensembles often associated with religious occasions and performed during Catholic mass. Soon enough, though, they incorporated these into secular events.

Indigenous people quickly adopted European instruments, even altering the shapes and the tunings to incorporate them into native musical styles. Enslaved Africans soon arrived in great numbers, bringing their musical traditions. These cultures blended throughout Mexico’s colonial period (1521-1821) to create a colorful heritage for Mexico’s mestizo population. And as mestizo culture developed, so did their music.


Sowing the Seeds: The 1700s 

Historians can piece together Mariachi’s development in the eighteenth century to see how the stylistic seeds were sown. The most direct ancestor of Mariachi was Son Jalisciense, named for the state of Jalisco in which it originated.

Many varieties of Mexican folk music evolved during this era, with each style unique to a particular region. Traditions go so far as to specify the town of Cocula as the music’s genesis point. Still, it warrants mention that neighboring states like Colima, Nayarit, and Michoacán claim to have contributed to this music’s origin. Regardless, Jalisco quickly became the genre’s indisputable epicenter. The song La Negra, which is both Son Jalisciense’s most recognizable composition and also known unofficially as “the mariachi national anthem,” makes a distinct reference to Jalisco in its lyrics.

Son Jalisciense groups were primarily string ensembles consisting of a harp, two violins, and a vihuela guitar. These folk bands mainly played instrumental pieces called sones, which, at the time, were unique to the region and its towns. The complex 6/8 meter tunes made them very danceable, a trait that has remained inherent to Mariachi music. For example, the flamboyant and stylish Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican Hat Dance) originates from the Jalisco city of Guadalajara and has since become Mexico’s national dance.

The dancers are sometimes as integral to the music as the instruments. Zapateado is a dance that is Spanish in origin but very closely associated with this music.  It involves stomping the heels of the dancer’s boots on the dance floor, resulting in clicking sounds that come together in swift, synchronized rhythms which double as the percussion for the song being played.

A similar style of music called San Jarocho also developed in the coastal state of Veracruz. Aside from geography, San Jarocho differed subtly from Son Jalisciense’s instrumentation. Regardless of the minor differences, it became an equally danceable form of music with similar associations and deserves a place in the Mariachi family tree.


Becoming “Mariachis”: The 1800s

The popularity of Son Jalisciense music in Jalisco provided many Mexican workers with extra income. Workers at haciendas (rural plantations) who could play the music were often hired for higher wages than those not so musically inclined. Because of the demand for their skills, these laborers usually drifted between haciendas more often than others. The reputation for vagrancy associated with mariachi musicians may, therefore, have begun here. But this was only one of the distinguishable features of Mariachi that formed in this century.

The genre’s name, “Mariachi,” was coined in the 1800s. The term is conclusively Mexican and is thought to have been derived from pronunciations of foreign words by speakers of the now-extinct Coca language of central Jalisco. However, beyond that, there are several possible explanations for the term. Some reasons for the name suggest the names of the trees and kinds of wood commonly used to construct dance floors or instruments. However, the most common understanding for many years was that the term came about during the Second French Intervention of Mexico from 1862-67.

The popularity and frequency with which Mariachi bands played at weddings during this era led many to associate the accented French word for marriage (marriage) with the musicians. This theory has recently faced a dispute with the discovery of a letter from a priest named Cosme Santa Anna in Nayarit. Father Cosme complains about how noisy the “Mariachis” became during the weddings he performed. As the letter is dated 1852, one is left to conclude that the name was there before the French were. However, it points to yet another interesting theory.

One specific ranch near Nayarit is named after an image known colloquially as “Maria H.” Local languages and accents would have likely pronounced this name as “Mari-Ache.” Hundreds of certificates for baptisms, funerals, and weddings, dated from 1832-1850, show that these events were commonplace at the Mariachi ranch. All of these were occasions that called for music, and since Nayarit was once part of southern Jalisco, it is no stretch of the imagination to guess what kind.

The latter half of the 1800s saw Mexican culture embracing many forms of European art and musical traditions. Mariachis diversified their repertoire to better meet their audience’s growing taste by incorporating opera, salon music, waltzes, and more. Vocals were also introduced to many of the formerly instrumental sones. Also, the more portable guitarrón gradually supplanted the harp. This instrument was designed specifically for mariachis and is essentially a larger version of the vihuela. It features six thick strings, producing powerful bass notes.

The Guitarrón

Mariachi bands further evolved to serve as orquestas típicas (salon orchestras). These ensembles performed in rural settings and adopted the then-fashionable charro (cowboy outfits). The charro attire solidified its place in Mariachi culture with the national Orquestra Típica Mexicana (“Mexican Typical Orchestra”). It was established in 1884 under the direction of Carlo Curti. The orchestra toured the United States and Mexico, displaying Mexican nationalism for President Porfirio Diaz.

Some have even referred to Curti’s Orquestra Típica Mexicana as the forerunner of modern Mariachi bands. Since then, the broad sombrero, short jacket, form-fitting pants, and shiny brass spurs and buttons of the charro suit have become passe in most facets of Mexican pop culture. Still, it lives on, having become inseparable from Mariachi music and those who play it.


Mariachi moves to the big city: 1910-1920s

The twentieth century was a time of significant change for Mariachi music and the land of its birth. The plantation lifestyle that had fostered Mariachi was on its way out as Mexico underwent profound transformations such as industrialization, urbanization, and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Haciendas struggled to adapt to the changing economic and political landscape. Finally, they had to release most or all of their field workers, even mariachis. Most of these unemployed workers switched to city life for fresh opportunities. Those with musical skills often relied on their talent to supplement their income in this unfamiliar environment.

Most mariachis of this era were semi-professional. The familiar ensemble of up to eight violins, dual trumpets, a vihuela, and a guitarrón became standard. Having each musician alternate between singing lead and backup vocals also became customary. Mariachi bands often roamed from town to town and plaza to plaza, offering their musical services for payment.

To this day, mariachis still predominantly function as “request bands,” catering to the musical preferences of their clients. As always, the musicians adapted to their audience’s tastes, which led them to incorporate diverse music into their performances, including waltzes and polkas. Even today, a typical mariachi musician must possess the ability to play various musical styles such as sones, polkas, waltzes, boleros (love ballads), rancheras (country songs), or any number of popular songs that customers will pay for.

The growing international popularity of brass bands also saw the incorporation of the now quintessential trumpets and trombones. Mariachi horn sections became a staple of the genre going forward. Much like the Charro suit, a fashion trend of a bygone era gained immortality in Mariachi music.


Itinerate to Iconic: 1930s-2020s

The 1930s brought much brighter days. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the new Mexican government aimed to foster a sense of national unity and pride among the population. They chose Mariachi as a musical symbol of Mexican culture, and Mariachi bands became prominently featured in political events. The music also embraced emerging mediums like film, radio, and sound recordings.

As the genre’s popularity grew, musicians further incorporated Cuban music and American Jazz influences. They also adapted their songs to fit the 78 RPM records of the time. The real came when Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán gained widespread fame. The orchestra was invited to perform at President Lazaro Cardenas’ inauguration in 1934, propelling Mariachi into the limelight and transforming it from local, rural music into a highly organized and professional genre with international appeal.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Mariachi gradually became Mexico’s national pop- music. Mariachis became the standard backup band for famous singers in the country. Artists like Pedro InfanteLola Beltrán, Javier Solís, and José Alfredo Jiménez soon became household names across Mexico and other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.

Across the American border, particularly in Texas, an influx of Mexican-American immigrants from central Mexico brought Mariachi. In 1961, Nati Cano’s Los Angeles-based Mariachi Los Camperos debuted to become the first professional US mariachi group. Concurrently, the genre was integrated into school curricula in many southwestern cities, including San Antonio, Texas. This integration introduced the tradition to fresh audiences and aspiring performers in the US and the world.


Mariachi goes global but remains Mexican

The 1970s saw international recognition for Mariachi music. Rising stars like Juan Gabriel and Vicente Fernández sold millions of records across the globe, even in countries where Spanish wasn’t the primary language. Foreign artists became enchanted with this uniquely Mexican genre. Mariachi soon emerged everywhere from Japan to Sweden, all sporting the Charro suit and singing in what was a second language to them.

From 1994 until today, the Mariachi International Festival in Guadalajara has been the site of a pilgrimage by Mariachi musicians worldwide. Every year, mariachi bands from far-off places like Sweden, Croatia, and Egypt flock to Guadalajara to participate in the music they love. Genre blenders like Metalachi, a band that blends Mariachi with Metal, are also known to make appearances. Attendees will usually witness an international performance of La Negra. June of 2023 saw the festival harken in its third decade, celebrating Mexico’s national brand of music.

Despite the international appeal, Mariachi will assuredly always be distinctly Mexican. In 2011, The United Nations acknowledged Mariachi as part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, making it one of the seven entries from Mexico in that category. As a result, Mexico will always be Tierra de Mariachi (the land of Mariachi).

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