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Monday, April 4, 2011

Mariachi, a Folk Music of Mexico

Image courtesy of Señor Codo/Wikipedia.
Mariachi is music native to Mexico, mainly associated with Jalisco, but also the western states of Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguacalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Colima.  Its exact birthplace is unknown, as early Mexican folk music was not documented.

In 1519 professional Spanish musicians accompanied 
Hernán Cortés when he arrived in Mexico.  The native population already had their own musical style, to which they added the European influence.  Later in the colonial period, black slaves brought music from Africa which further enhanced the style.

Image courtesy of Guillame Corport Muller/Wikipedia.
Traditional mariachi songs are typically love songs, either happy or sad.  But mariachi is now interacting with other mainstream genres, and it's not uncommon to hear a type of mariachi/pop or other fusion.  It is important in the study of Mexican music as it has become an emblematic form reflected in popular radio, the first Mexican films, and now globally.

The original mariachi were street musicians or buskers.  They wore peasant garb and had no concern for presenting a group appearance.  In the early 1900s groups began to wear modest uniforms.  Eventually the chosen dress was tight and ornamented pants, short jackets, embroidered belts, wide bow ties, boots, and sombreros.  These were the clothes of a traje de charro, a horseman or wealthy hacienda owner.  There are other types of street performers:  Jarochos (from Veracruz) or norteño bands from the northern states.  Groups that include accordions among their instruments are tejano.

Image courtesy of Gerardo Gonzalez/Wikipedia.

The instrumentation has changed over time.  Circa 1900 it was common that a group had four musicians, and the instruments used varied among groups and regions.  In central Jalisco there may have been two violins, a vihuela (a small instrument similar to a guitar with five strings and a convex back), and a guitarrón (like a vihuela but larger with six strings - kind of a cross between a guitar and an upright bass).  In southern Jalisco and Michoacán more likely two violins, a harp, and a guitarra de golpe were used.

After 1910 groups became bigger, and more instruments were used and in more numbers.  The use of the guitarra de golpe and the harp lessened and the modern classical guitar was adopted.  Wind instruments were added, such as the trumpet. Today the common instrumentation is three to six violins, two trumpets, a vihuela, guitars, and guitarrons.  All of the members of the group may sing.

Mariachi Torrez, image courtesy of www.talentbookingusa.com.

There's long been a rumor that the name came from the French word for "marriage".  In the 1860s, the French occupied Mexico.  Legend has it that during this time some French soldiers investigated the noise coming from a wedding party.  Asked what was going on, the Mexican guests shouted "c'est une mariage" ("it's a marriage") but with their Mexican accent it sounded like "mariachi".  This is a nice story, but untrue.  The first written documentation was in a letter by a priest, Cosme Santa Anna, in 1852.  Since the word and the musical group predate the French occupation, the phonetic similarity is coincidental.  Scholars agree the word comes from an indigenous language but differ on which one.  Some think it's from the Coca people of Jalisco, others believe it's from a tree in the Cora language of Nayarit (the wood from which may have served as a platform or stage for the players).  

Mariachi in Guadalajar, Jalisco, Mexico.  Image courtesy of Gerardo Gonzalez/Wikipedia.
The best mariachi groups have eleven or more members, all well-trained.  At the other end are groups with seven or less members, little or no formal training, who wander offering their services.  Most groups are in between.  Mariachi Vargas is the gold standard of mariachis, begun in 1898 by Gaspar Vargas, and taken over by his son Silvestre, considered by many to be the greatest mariachi of all time. 

Mexico City became the center of mariachi music in Mexico.  Likewise, Los Angeles is the urban mecca for mariachi in the United States.  The famous mariachi group Los Comperos founded their own supper club in Los Angeles, La Fonda.  This was the world's first venue to showcase mariachi.  The Los Angeles Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA organized Mariachi 
Uclatlán, the first effort in the academic study of mariachi.  Today educational institutions in the Southwest offer classes in mariachi music.
A mariachi band in Zapata, Texas.  Image courtesy of Billy Hathorn/Wikipedia.
Since the 1940s there have been a number of all-female groups, and mariachi groups of mixed gender are common today, especially in the United States.  Groups are expected to play songs upon request and some groups have 1,000 or more songs in their repertoire.  Since little written music is available, it has to be learned by ear and memorized.

Image courtesy www.lacountyarts.com.
One traditional aspect that cannot be ignored is the grito mexicano (Mexican scream) - a yell done at specific interludes of a song by the musicians and/or the audience.  It starts with the first syllable held as long as possible, leaving enough breath for a series of trills.  Listen to the young woman below, then practice as much as possible.  Mexican music can be a scream!


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