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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkVallarta Living | February 2009 

The History of Mexico's "Mariachi Music"
email this pageprint this pageemail usJustin Levasseur - Arizona.edu
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Antonio Banderas - El Mariachi
The only thing more Mexican than tequila is mariachi music and some might consider it a shame to have one without the other. Mariachi goes beyond music; it is the sum of a cultural revolution expressed through a group of musicians, dressed in popular clothing (most recently charro suits) which encompasses the essence of Mexico and its people. It is something cultural, spiritual and traditional that is unique to this country, an experience not to be missed.

The word mariachi refers to the musicians now commonly seen in restaurants or strolling the streets, dressed in silver studded charro suits with wide brimmed hats playing a variety of instruments which include violins, guitars, basses, vihuelas, and trumpets. Their songs tell stories about machismo, love, betrayal, death, politics, revolutionary heroes and even animals. The mariachi originated in the southern part Jalisco state in Mexico sometime in the 19th century. No one is sure where the name comes from, although a variety of theories circulate.

The origins of the mariachi itself (the group, culture, music, etc.) are not much easier to trace. The mariachi is the sum of a cultural evolution which has taken place over the last century or so in Mexico. Although the indigenous tribes of Mexico made music with flutes, drums and whistles, there is no clear link between the indigenous music and the mariachi. The instruments originally used by the mariachi were those introduced by the Spaniards including violins, guitars, vihuelas, and harps.

These instruments were intended to be used during masses but the criollos (Mexicans of Spanish descent) began using them to make popular music as well, much to the chagrin of the priests, since they were used to accompany some of the more scandalous, satirical or anticlerical couplets of the times. Mariachi music thrived with the support of the people. The criollos of the 19th century emphasized home-grown Mexican traditions version Spanish ones, and in so doing, supported mariachi music.

Mariachis could be seen wearing traditional workmen's clothes - white pants and shirt and a straw hat - and traveling around looking for work. Most commonly they would find employment at any of the haciendas (ranches) where they would earn more than the average laborer. With the revolution, many of the haciendas were forced to let the mariachis go. As a result, these musicians traveled from town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, carrying news from one place to another. Still not enjoying the same position they had previously enjoyed, the mariachis took to playing in public venues for a fee. One of the most popular venues was San Pedro Tlaquepaque in the state of Jalisco, a fashionable place for the residents of Guadalajara to spend their summers.

Since mariachis were playing for a fee they were forced to add new elements to their music and to expand their repertoire to include waltzes and polkas. By the early part of the twentieth century the mariachi began to regain its popularity. The most prized of the mariachis were still those from the state of Jalisco, particularly the areas of Cocula and Tecaltitlan.

With the advent of radio and television the popularity of mariachi music continued to grow. Recording contracts were signed and mariachi groups were paired with famous singers like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. Due to the popularity of jazz and Cuban music the trumpet was added, pushing the violins into second place and, in some cases, replacing the harp. Movies were made which represented Mexico as a place populated with truly macho men whose lives revolved around the charro, tequila and, of course, the mariachi.

Today, mariachi music is played around the world in places as far away as Japan and Europe. This integral part of Mexico's culture and history is celebrated each September in its birthplace, Jalisco.



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