Say you’ve travelled to Mexico and someone will invariably mention mariachi music. There is some doubt as to the origin of this distinctly Mexican tradition but none whatsoever as to its strident future.
By Sandra Roblágui
Indubitably Mexico’s most famous tradition, mariachi music, is a marriage of European instruments and New World sounds that emerged not long after the Conquest and that continues to liven up get-togethers to this very day.
Half a century ago, the mariachi traveled beyond Mexico’s borders and was well received in other parts of the world, so much so that some countries have their own mariachi bands, many of which sing in their native languages. Today, the sounds in the mariachi’s repertoire include the precise chords of the guitar, one of the oldest, most popular instruments in the world: on occasion, the sweet resonance of the harp; the nostalgic wail of the violin (two or three for each trumpet); the joyful Mexican bandoleón, a large box that serves as an acoustic bass.
According to journalist and researcher Patricia Alamilla, it is popularly held that the word dates from the time of the French Intervention in Mexico in the mid-19th century. The story goes that a group of French soldiers arrived at a town in Jalisco where a wedding was taking place. When they enquired about the merrymaking, their translator replied: “C’est un mariage”. In August 1925, a national daily published: “The mariachi […] was born in the days of the French Intervention and the word originally means marriage in French,” says researcher Jesús Jáuregui in his book The Mariachi. A Musical Symbol of Mexico.
Other authors, like Ricardo Espinoza, claim that the term was introduced shortly after the Conquest and that its source is a native song to the Virgin Mary, plus the suffix “chi”, which means “song” in the native language of the Coca people from the Cocula region in Jalisco.
Still others say it is derived from the wooden platform or “mariachi” the natives and the vihuela, a small five-string guitar that accompanies the deeper chords of the guitarrón, a 25-string guitar that some historians believe was invented in colonial Mexico, although others associate it with the Spanish Renaissance. The trumpet was introduced just 80 years ago and most mariachi bands have two.
As for the origin of the term “mariachi”, there are several hypotheses. of Techaluta, another small community in Western Mexico, used to dance on to magnify the sound of their stamping feet. These versions also credit the Coca people with inventing the vihuela and the guitarrón to imitate the Spanish lute and double bass, respectively.
For centuries, the mariachi, like tequila, was scorned by Mexico’s elite as a symbol of the masses. Mariachis typically played at parties called fandangos, famous in what are today the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Colima, Nayarit and Zacatecas. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the first mariachi record was made and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, mariachi music gradually became more widely accepted as musicians made their way from the west to Mexico City and began wearing charro outfits.
The mariachis of old wore a pair of pants, a white cotton shirt and a plain straw hat, like the one worn by farmers, while the charro outfit was more akin to the attire of Mexico’s wealthy landowners of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Also in the early 20th century, the trumpet was added.
Today, especially outside Mexico, it’s hard to find a mariachi band without wind instruments. Some believe the adoption of the charro outfit and trumpets can be attributed to the way mariachi musicians were portrayed in the films of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1936-1957). Mario Alberto Nájera, a researcher at the University of Guadalajara (UDG), is of that opinion. He believes that the commercialization and internationalization of mariachi bands has modified their costumes, instruments and songs, although most of their lyrics are still about life in the country, despite the fact that over 70% of Mexicans are city dwellers.
If you’re a mariachi fan, September is the best time to visit the city of Guadalajara, where you can catch the International Mariachi and Charrería Festival just before Mexico’s independence festivities. As part of a concerted effort to revive and preserve the ancient music of Mexico, Guadalajara will also be hosting the 12th National Festival of Traditional Mariachis from September 4 to 8, 2013. Each band will be decked out in regional dress and the decibel level will be off the charts!
For more information visit www.mariachi-jalisco.com.mx
Originally published in Negocios ProMexico