The Mariachi: a symbol of Mexican culture

El Mariachi or mariachi groups are typical ensembles originating in the western part of Mexico in the present-day states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Nayarit.

El Mariachi, generally consisting of a variable number of members, they wear the costume of the charro (a landowning horseman) and a hat considered of such fine craftsmanship that it has no resemblance to those sold in the souvenir shops for tourists.

Today, the Mariachi tradition has spread to all corners of the world and this month it will be presented to UNESCO 2011 to be part of the Nominative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

(November 27, 2011: Mariachi is now a Cultural Heritage of Humanity, UNESCO )

Before reaching the popularity it holds today, regional Mexican music has gone through different stages of rise and decline in public taste. In contemporary Mexico, mariachi has managed to maintain the framework of its various traditions of our country and keep our native music alive.

Origins of the Mariachi

Although the word mariachi is commonly thought of to be an adoption of the French word mariage, meaning a wedding with no historical evidence to substantiate it, it is most likely a pre-Hispanic word. The confusion can be easily laid to rest, since contrary to popular theory, the mariachis did not have their origins in marriages but rather in the popular music and with the street artists of New Galicia, what is Guadalajara today.

The legend behind the first theory says that at the time of the French intervention some Gallic soldiers heard the music for the first time during a wedding.  They began to use this word to refer to the band that played. This story, although funny, remains a speculation. Like many other customs of the Mexican Republic, the origin is uncertain.  It has even been said that the first time you heard a mariachi was not in Jalisco but in Mexico City.

Either way, you must understand that the process by which this tradition was born, or any other current musical vernacular, cannot be defined by a specific date, but rather it is an evolutionary process that includes the arrival of the first European instruments until post-revolutionary Mexico, which embraced this tradition so strongly as part of its national identity and continues to influence the country, or ranchera, music of today.

Instruments of the Mariachi

Although the instruments may vary depending on the size of the group, there is always the guitarrón (a large guitar), the vihuela (similar to the guitar) and a guitar, trumpet, double bass and a violin. Larger groups include more brass, strings in various tones, and sometimes a harp.

Musical Fusion

But in talking about instrumental richness, it is enough just to mention the fusion that has occurred with Mexican music. A clear example of this is the show performed by the renowned Mexican artist Alejandro Fernandez at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2002 (Palace of Fine Arts), in which the addition of a symphonic ensemble to the mariachi created a mix of sounds that is still remembered for its beauty.

However, the extent of regional music does not end with its classical interpretation.  The passage of time has also demanded that our cultural heritage is received within other contemporary trends.

Pop and electronic music have blended their rhythm to get a result that is both indigenous and modern. Some of the most popular examples of this are the songs “El último adios” (The last Goodbye) by Mexican singer Paulina Rubio, and “El sol no regresa” (The sun does not come Back) from the Spanish band La 5a Estación. Last year, the album Bimexicano reunited some of the most popular Spanish rock bands of all time for a disk that was a true representation of Mexican music.

The best Mariachi music is still the traditional, and there is nothing more Mexican than a serenade accompanied by traditional instruments or enjoying a Mexican night listening to the songs that have become known as a popular art form all around the world.

Links of Interest:

Video: Jorge Negrete singing: “Yo Soy Mexicano”

Video: Mariachi Vargas: Potpourri Veracruz