Throughout the world, mariachi is a recognized symbol of Mexico. For Mexicans it is the musical accompaniment to life's most important moments: it forms a vital part of courtship and family events such as weddings, birthdays, baptisms, and funerals. This is the emblematic sound of Mexico, which reaches into the hearts of its listeners evoking the history and traditions of Mexico.
In almost any city in Mexico you'll come across these groups of musicians decked out in fancy costumes with wide-brimmed sombreros. You may see them playing in a restaurant or bar, or waiting in a plaza for someone to hire them. They grace the stages of Mexico's most important theaters and stadiums and enliven gatherings of all types. In a Mexican neighborhood it's not uncommon to wake up in the early hours of the morning to the sound of a mariachi group serenading a señorita on her birthday, a mother on Mother's Day, or the Virgin Mary on her feast day at a local chapel.
Although there is some debate about the exact origins of mariachi music, it is clear that it is a result of a fusion of musical styles that evolved over a few hundred years in the highlands of western central Mexico, particularly in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit and Michoacan. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the native people of Mexico had a highly developed musical tradition using a variety of wind and percussion instruments. The Spaniards introduced string instruments of European origin that the indigenous people mastered and incorporated into their music. The arrival of slaves from Africa added a new element to the musical mix and contributed to the style of folk music of the region.
There are a variety of theories surrounding the derivation of the word mariachi. A popular myth, now debunked, is that it is a corruption of the French word mariage (marriage). The misconception arose from the fact that mariachi groups were the preferred form of entertainment at weddings during the period of the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s. An early theory was that the musicians got their name from the occasion at which they most frequently played. However, a letter written in 1852 by Father Cosme Santa Ana to his bishop in which he uses the word mariachi dispelled this theory, proving that the word predates the French intervention. It is now generally accepted that the word mariachi is of indigenous origin, although there is still some dispute about from which language it actually derives.
During its early days, ad hoc ensembles performed mariachi music and the musical style was associated with the rural lower classes. However, in the early 1900s mariachi began to gain acceptance by the upper classes. Radio, cinema and the photograph brought mariachi music to the masses. What had previously been a rural, regional style of music came to national prominence in the 1930s.
The traditional mariachi ensemble is smaller than the modern group, consisting of as few as four musicians who play only string instruments and no horns. The vihuela, a small, high-pitched five string guitar with a rounded back, and the guitarron, a stout guitar-shaped bass, are two of the distinctive instruments that are essential to a mariachi troupe. A traditional mariachi would also have at least two violins and possibly a harp. The harp has generally fallen out of favor because it is not mobile. The modern mariachi troupe is often much larger, with as many as 20 musicians who play trumpets along with string instruments. The addition of trumpets came about in the 1920s to create a more forceful sound that would carry across the radio waves. Most of the musicians also sing, besides playing an instrument.
The suit worn by modern mariachi musicians is an embellished version of the traje de charro, the costume worn by horse riders in the Mexican equestrian tradition: a waist-length jacket and fitted pants (or skirt for women) trimmed with silver buttons sewn down each side, or a geometric design made with appliqued suede or embroidery, and ankle-high boots. Accessories include a wide embroidered belt, a large bow tie and the ornately decorated broad-brimmed sombrero, the crowning glory of this fancy ensemble.
During the colonial period and the early years of independent Mexico, musicians, like ranch workers, wore white cotton shirts and trousers with huaraches (leather sandals) and straw hats. Mariachis started wearing the charro costume in the early 1900s. An often-told story of dubious historical accuracy tells that president Porfirio Diaz hired musicians for an event at which he was entertaining foreign dignitaries. He felt that their homespun pants and shirts were not suitably dignified for the event, so at his suggestion they donned charro suits. We do know with certainty that composer and pianist Miguel Lerdo de Tejada had his national folkloric orchestra wear charro suits starting in 1901. Musical groups from Jalisco began to use the costume in the 1930s and from that time it became the official uniform of mariachis.
Mariachi songs deal with widely divergent themes common to the human condition, such as love, betrayal, politics, death, revolution and patriotism. Whether the songs are upbeat or tragic, they express powerful emotion. Don't be surprised if a member of the audience suddenly shouts out a loud, “Ay ay ay!” or if every Mexican within earshot begins to belt out the song along with the mariachis. This is a type of music that invites audience participation, so feel free to join in.
In Guadalajara, you can hear mariachis in the Plaza de los Mariachis, which is close to the Hospicio Cabañas, or in Tlaquepaque at El Parian. When you hire mariachis in a plaza or restaurant, you will usually pay by the song. Expect to pay from 50 to 100 pesos per serenade, or more, depending on the location, the size of the troupe and their proficiency. They will ask what song you would like to hear. If someone in your group is celebrating a birthday or special occasion, ask them to play Las Mañanitas. Some good upbeat songs include the Jarabe Tapatio (which you may know as the Mexican Hat Dance) and El Son de la Negra. If you want something more romantic, ask for La Malagueña, Serenata Huasteca, or Sabor a Mi.
Appreciation for mariachi music is on the rise. In 2011, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) recognized mariachi as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to the selection committee: “Mariachi music conveys values that promote respect for the natural heritage of regional Mexico and the local history, both in Spanish and in indigenous languages from the west of the country.”
Mariachi continues to evolve; one of the changes is the rising trend of women mariachi musicians, and all-women mariachi bands. Although all-women mariachi bands have existed since the 1940s, they have become more common in recent years. There has also been a revival of interest in the history and traditional forms of mariachi; at the International Mariachi and Charreria Festival, held yearly in Guadalajara, there is an increasing number of traditional mariachi troupes.
In Guadalajara the most popular place to listen to different mariachi bands and make a booking for a mariachi band to perform at your social event is the Mariachi Plaza, on Calzada Independencia and Javier Mina Avenue, next to the San Juan de Dios church.
Mariachi symbolizes Mexican music, culture and history. An appreciation for mariachi is strong among music lovers around the globe. With its recognition as part of the intangible culture of humanity, mariachi will undoubtedly continue to represent the unique sound of Mexico.