Mariachi: The Melody of Mexico
Mariachi is a folkloric music tradition of Mexico that plays a profound and fundamental role in the culture of the Mexican people. A bright-eyed quinceañera revels in a trumpet-heavy serenade at her fancy birthday party, while somewhere else a family mourns the loss of a loved one by listening to heart-wrenching canciones de funeral (funeral songs). The fact is, where there’s emotion in Mexico, there’s mariachi.
Whether you’re happy or sad, convivial or lonely, you needn’t look very far to find a soulful ensemble of mariachi singers who know hundreds of songs to complement your mood. Surprisingly, more than 4,000 mariachi bands actively perform in Mexico City on any given weekend!
Mariachi para siempre
But, how did this come to be? Why does the entire country of Mexico insist that this type of music be present desde el bautizo hasta el entierro (from the cradle to the grave)?
You see, mariachi means much more than just music to this vibrant culture—it represents a deep respect for Mexican heritage, its history, and the Spanish language that defines it. Let’s take a look at the rich history behind mariachi and the current state of this music genre.
Mexico’s Intangible History
The unified story of music and dance is a tale as old as time. As the musical style of mariachi emerged humbly through a collective desire for self-expression and entertainment by the country folk of Mexico, they began to gather together for rural fiestas spirited with fandango dancing. Interestingly, the name dates back as far as 1852, when a priest named Cosme Santa Anna wrote a letter denouncing the disorderly conduct associated with it. While speculation exists about the exact birthplace of this influential genre, it’s likely that it originated in western Mexico, near or within the state of Jalisco.
The World’s a Stage
Despite its modest beginnings, mariachi burst onto the scene of post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s as a symbol of national pride. Significantly, Álvaro Obregón set a historical precedent by being the first president of Mexico (1920-1924) to use mariachi music in all of his political events. In subsequent years, the music continued to gain international fame and popularity.
In 2011, UNESCO recognized mariachi as part of their “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, which aims to protect significant cultural heritages and to promote awareness of their importance. This further supports the transmission of mariachi music and culture through generations in order to keep its songs and traditions alive.
Song Styles and Themes for Every Listener
The song styles of mariachi are a bewitching combination of indigenous, African, and European elements. By slightly adjusting aspects like rhythm, tone, melodies, and waltz-inspired additions, mariachi branches out to form several sub-genres:
- Corrido (story-telling lyrics)
- Bolero (soft, emotional, and romantic)
- Rancheras (about strength, courage, and fighting enemies)
- Son Huapango (with busy violin passages)
- Joropo (resembles fandango, originated in Venezuela)
- Danzón (slow, formal partner dance, originated in Cuba)
Each song style embodies a certain cultural theme or a particular cultural motif that lives in the minds of the public. Put simply, mariachi sings what the people are thinking. Examples include traditional topics like love, courtship, rural life, patriotism, and nature; while more modern subjects showcase revolutionary heroes and current events.
Traditional Trajes de Charro
In 1907, General Portofino Diaz forever changed the course of this music’s image and presentation. One day, he demanded that a peasant ensemble of mariachi singers wear ornate horseman suits to appease the arrival of a U.S. Secretary of State. The horseman suit was originally (and still is) the typical suit worn by a charro—a more noble and affluent version of a vaquero, or cowboy. It is a colorful, attention-seeking costume that denotes both national pride and skillfulness. Today, these iconic outfits are called el traje de charro and they are the traditional mariachi outfit.
Modern orchestras wield trumpets, violins, vihuelas, and guitarrones. As a group, they are usually composed of four or more musicians. Sometimes, an ensemble uses a guitarra de golpe or a mariachi harp. Especially within the last 50 years, musicians have incorporated other instruments like the accordion, organ, keyboard, harmonica, saxophone, and drums. While these additions were appreciated, they have never been accepted as essential to the genre.
Sing Your Way to Fluency
In your quest to learn more about mariachi bands, make sure you check out top mariachi performers like Vicente Fernandez, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Rocio Durcal, and Pepe Aguilar. If you find a song you like, do yourself a favor—look up the lyrics! Soon enough you can sing along with the mariachi greats and improve your Spanish-speaking skills. Or, you could always schedule a free class with one of our highly-qualified Spanish teachers. Undoubtedly, they would love to talk about your experience with mariachi!
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