nineteenth century, the term “mariachi,” among other things, was
given to the 3 to 4-piece secular music groups native to the western states of
Jalisco, Colima Nayarit, Michoacan, and Guerrero (Sheehy 1999:44). Although
instrumentation varied among these groups, the most typical consisted of a harp,
1 or 2 violins, and one of several guitar-type instruments, such as the vihuela,
guitarra de golpe, or jarana (Sheehy 1999:45). Central to mariachi
repertoire was the regional variant of the most representative folk music genre
of Mexico: the son (pronounced soun). The son de mariachi was but
one of several (son) co-traditions that existed throughout central, eastern, and
western Mexico that was used (as it is today) in accompanying song and dance
during festive social gatherings.
The harp was key in
the performance of the son, in that its versatility allowed the harpist
to play as a soloist, in a duet (accompanied by a vihuela), or in a group. The
primary role of the harp, whether in a solo or group context, was to provide
bass lines by pulling octaves with the left hand. With the right hand, the
harpist executed melodic lines or provided simple harmonic accompaniment. The
harp helped establish the visual and acoustic aesthetic of the small ensemble,
with its characteristic “booming” bass and its aggressive treble attacks.
In its traditional
cultural context, the mariachi harp thrived because it was suited for the type
of musical group in which it existed. Sones (soun-es) consisted of only
the tonic, subdominant, and dominant seventh chords in one or two major keys.
The harp however, despite being diatonic could play a full range of notes
without encountering the difficulties of complex harmonies and modulation
(Morales 1996:para. 4). The harp could be easily heard over the entire group,
since the mariachi was made up of only several string instruments. Its size,
weight, and awkward bulkiness probably posed less of a burden on the rural
harpist who did not have to transport his instrument long distances, as opposed
to the highly mobile urban musicians. Consequently, the musical and non-musical
circumstances surrounding the rural mariachi culture allowed for the creation of
a strong harp tradition in western Mexico.
There is no
absolute standard in the construction of folk harps of western Mexico. Regional,
local, and even individual preferences among harp makers allow for slight
variations in size, shape, and materials used. These differences are so
significant that depending on the geographical area, harps will differ in name.
It is also known as Arpa Planeca, Arpa Abajeno, or Arpa Grande,
as it is called in Michoacan (Morales 1996:para. 2). Nonetheless, there are
several characterizing features that distinguish harps from other types of Latin
American folk harps, the two most important being that they are centrally
located in the state of Jalisco, and that they are integral components of the
mariachi ensembles. It is because of these commonalties that they are
collectively known as Jalisco or mariachi harps.
The mariachi harp
is a 36-string diatonic harp, constructed primarily of cedar and tacote (Senecio
albonervius, a balsa-like wood native to western Mexico), which is used
in constructing the soundboard only. The sounbdbox consists of seven completely
closed panels of cedar, five of which are joined to make-up the very large
“belly,” and two are fused to make the “barn door” base which also acts
as the legs that form part of it (Harding 1973:9). The tacote soundboard
typically exhibits a lengthwise grain with four soundholes of decreasing
diameter running up the length of the harp, two on each side of the string
plane. The general shape of the soundbox is deep and wide at the base and short
in length, more so than Mexico’s most popular folk harp, the arpa jarocha
or Veracruz harp.
In comparing the
two Mexican harp variants, the jarocho harps is also constructed of panels glued
together, although it is common to find harps made from a single sheet of
plywood molded to make the soundbox. Unlike the mariachi harp, the soundholes of
the jarocho harp are commonly found on the backside and two separate legs are
attached to the base to support the harp. While the jarocho harp usually has the
same number of strings as the mariachi harp, they tend to be at a higher
tension, producing loud and projecting treble sound. Also, the neck is
constructed with bridge pins on the left side and its curvature tends to be more
arched than the mariachi harp (Harding 1973:10).
The neck of the
mariachi harp has a very unpronounced curvature, almost being a straight bar,
which is sometimes decorated with a cockscomb on the topside. While the tuning
pegs were once primarily made of wood, it is today common to find aluminum pegs.
One of the more interesting details of the mariachi harp is that it has no
bridge pins; the strings run directly from the soundboard up the left side of
the neck and into to the tuning pegs. Although gut strings were formerly used,
nylon strings are more common today.
entry into the national and international spotlight resulted in a drastic
transformation in its music-culture. Adapting to the demands of mainstream
Mexico, the mariachi was forced to sacrifice many of the characteristics related
to its original cultural context, in order to make it more appealing to the
general public. As Jonathan Clark states,
Many of the rural
characteristics originally associated with the mariachi music were lost or
modified as it became urbanized and acquired increasing levels of
sophistication. However, these very changes enabled the mariachi to become more
than an obscure regional folk genre and to secure a prominent place within the
context of Mexican and world music (Clark 1992:6-7).
The arpa de mariachi was one of the many characteristics that the
mariachi sacrificed in order for it to achieve its widespread acceptance.
Transformations within the mariachi culture during its urbanization,
popularization, and commercialization made it increasingly difficult for the
harp to survive. While many musical as well as non-musical factors contributed
to the harp’s disappearance, the most critical stemmed from its structural
design and its inability to adapt to an ever-changing music genre. Size,
diatonic tuning, and limited dynamics were critical in bringing about its
gradual exclusion from the tradition, which in its attempts to dominate the
Mexican musical scene, was not sensitive to the special requirements of a
By 1900, the guitarron largely due to its chromatic capabilities
began to replace the harp as the primary bass instrument. As the mariachi
increasingly became polytonal, it needed a bass instrument that could
efficiently and effectively modulate, transpose, and execute chromatic bass
lines; a requirement that the diatonic harp could not do. Also, as the mariachi
became very mobile, the lightweight guitarron became even more appealing
than the bulkier and heavier harp because it was much easier for musicians to
transport (Fogelquist 1975:90). The harp’s limited volume, projection, and
resonance, primarily in the middle and treble ranges, also posed serious
problems. When additional violins and trumpets were added to the standard
ensemble, the harp was all but drowned out by the other instrumentalists.
The technical and stylistic development of the harp that ensued was in
direct response to the musical demands of the urban mariachi. Essentially, the
harpist developed techniques in order to cope with the drawbacks of performing
polytonal music within a large ensemble. The harp’s light treble strings could
not register over the more dynamic violin and trumpet sections, so it became
almost exclusively a bass and harmonic accompaniment instrument, and only
occasionally used the upper register for melodic flourishes and glissandos. In
performing notes outside of the harp’s diatonic tuning, the harpists took
advantage of the instrument’s lack of bridge pins and developed a unique
method of executing sharp notes within the bass range: they used their right
thumb to press down on a particular bass string at the neck, producing a
sharpened semitone when pulling that string with the left hand. While this
technique was essential in achieving the harp’s primary function, bass lines,
it further limited the harpist’s ability to utilize the middle and upper
strings. The development of the mariachi harp tradition as a whole was greatly
hindered by these technical and performance challenges. While other
instrumentalists excelled in developing new and complex techniques for the
highly sophisticated music, the harpists were forced to resort to compensatory
strategies that only allowed them to hold secondary roles in the mariachi.
The mariachi culture as a whole became perhaps the most significant
factor in pushing the harp out of usage due to these performance and structural
issues. The instrument had little place among musicians who generally viewed it
as an unessential component of the mariachi, especially when considering the
economics involved. It is plausible to expect a great deal of reluctance among
group members in sharing their earnings with an additional instrumentalist who
would probably burden their group more than contribute to it. For example, the
harpist could not fit his large instrument into the group automobile, could not
maneuver easily among clients and tight spaces in cantinas, would have
difficulty maintaining intonation, could not play in various keys, would be
overpowered by the other musicians, and lastly the group would likely already
have a bass player anyway! Instead of enduring the great hardships involved in
playing harp in the mariachi, many harpists learned other instruments, performed
as soloists, or turned to other types of Mexican folk harp music, such as the conjunto
jarocho of Veracruz and the conjunto de arpa grande of Michoacan.
mariachi’s most versatile instrument is played with the least versatility.
Playing “second fiddle” to the rest of the ensemble, the mariachi harp has
not enjoyed the level of technical development as the other mariachi
instruments, or that of other Latin American harp traditions. This can be
attributed to its structural and performance limitations, and mariachi culture
itself, which generally excluded the harp from its evolutionary process. The
mariachi harp has merely come to exist as an added luxury among the few groups
who still utilize it. While it does appear to be making a comeback among some of
the most recognized mariachis in the world, it has a long way to go before
reaching the type of acceptance and prosperity it once enjoyed and now so
Sergio “Checo” Alonso
Researcher, performer, and
teacher of Mexican and Latin American folk music, Checo is the harpist for one
of the most prestigious mariachi ensembles in the world: Mariachi Los
Camperos de Nati Cano. He teaches multicultural music at San Fernando High
School, in San Fernando, CA, and serves as the city’s Cultural Arts
Commissioner. Checo received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from
UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture in 1999 and is currently completing a
Masters degree in education. Contact Checo at firstname.lastname@example.org
1992. Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis vol. 3. Mariachi Vargas De
notes to Arhoolie Folklyric CD 7015.
Fogelquist, Mark. Rhythm
and Form in the Contemporary Son Jalisciense. Master's
thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1975.
1973. The Folk Harp in Mexico, with Emphasis on Veracruz. Folk
Harp Journal 3 (pp. 7-12).
1996. The Mariachi Harp. Retrieved April 2, 2003, from
1999. Popular Mexican Musical Traditions: The Mariachi of West
Mexico and the Conjunto
Jarocho of Veracruz. In J. M.
Schechter (Ed.), Music in Latin American Culture: Regional Traditions
(pp. 34-79). New York: Shirmer Books.