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A Brief History on the Mariachi Tradition


Entry on the word mariachi
from The Latino Encyclopedia.

(New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp, 1996)
Article by Jonathan D. Clark


(1) A specific type of Mexican musical group or ensemble. (2) An individual musician in a mariachi group (synonym: mariachero). (3) An adjective denoting a genre or style related to the mariachi, e.g., mariachi music, mariachi trumpet. Since the 1930s, the mariachi has been widely considered the quintessential Mexican folk-derived musical ensemble, and has become an institution symbolic of Mexican music and culture. Mariachi groups are currently found throughout the Americas and in Europe.

ORIGINS. Professional musicians accompanied Hernán Cortés when he arrived in what is now Mexico in 1519. Among their instruments were the harp and the vihuela, prototypes of those later used by the mariachi. Natives, who had their own highly developed musical traditions, quickly mastered European musical practices. With the importation of large numbers of black slaves, African music was also brought to Mexico during the early colonial period. Many regional traditions of mestizo folk music, including that of the mariachi, resulted from the ensuing cultural and musical blending of indigenous and foreign elements.

The mariachi is native to a region of western Mexico that includes what are today the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Colima; extending as far north as Sinaloa and Durango and as far south as Guerrero. Despite frequent attempts to attribute it to a specific state or town, the exact birthplace of the mariachi is unknown.

EARLY HISTORY. The early development of mestizo folk music in Mexico is largely undocumented, making speculative any theories on the early evolution of the mariachi. The earliest known incontrovertible reference to a mariachi appears in a letter written by priest Cosme Santa Anna in 1852, although the word can be found earlier as a place-name. Mariachis documented during the second half of the nineteenth century in central western Mexico were commonly associated with the rural fiesta or fandango, and with the tarima or wooden platform upon which couples would dance sones and jarabes, the two most important genres of the early mariachi repertory [see related entries].

Early mariachis wore peasant garb, and had little concern for dressing alike. After the Revolution of 1910, however, modest uniforms began to appear. When for the first time mariachis could afford to outfit themselves elegantly, they chose the suit of the horseman or traje de charro. The gala version of this suit wom by contemporary mariachis-with its tightly-fitting ornamented pants, short jacket, embroidered belt, boots, wide bow tie, and sombrero-was once the attire of wealthy hacienda owners. [see charro).

ETYMOLOGY. The consensus of modern scholars is that the word mariachi is indigenous to Mexico. The now-extinct Coca language of central Jalisco is that most frequently cited as its probable source. Legend erroneously attributes the word to the French Intervention of the 1860s, explaining it as a corruption of the French word mariage, and citing a similarity between mariachi (or its archaic variant, mariache) and the French word for wedding. Historical documents prove that both the word mariachi and the ensemble it designates pre-date the French occupation of Mexico, making any similarity with the French word a phonetic coincidence.

URBANIZATION. While its roots are rural, the contemporary mariachi is an urban phenomenon associated with post-revolutionary Mexico City. It was in that nation's capital and principal metropolis that the urban mariachi was born and where most of its development took place. Vestiges of earlier types of mariachis may still be found in rural Mexico, but the urban mariachi has been the dominant model since the 1930s.

In 1920, Cirilo Marmolejo moved his group from Tecolotlán, Jalisco to Mexico City, becoming the first mariachi to establish itself permanently in the capital. In 1923, the cantina Salón Tenampa opened on what is now Plaza Garibaldi, where the mariachis of Concho Andrade and Cirilo Marmolejo performed. The Tenampa soon became Mexico City's center of mariachi activity and attracted other groups from rural areas to that plaza.

Although mariachis had performed for official functions under Porfirio Diaz in 1905 and in 1907, it was not until after the Revolution of 1910 that the mariachi became widely adopted as a symbol of nationalism. Since Alvaro Obregón's administration (1920-1924), post-revolutionary Mexican presidents have used mariachi music for political events, with Lázaro Cárdenas being the first to officially subsidize it during his term (1934-1940).

The role of the media was crucial to the popularization of the mariachi. During the 1930s, radio, cinema, and the phonograph came of age in Mexico, launching what had previously been a rural, regional music to national and international prominence. The principal role of the mariachi in the media became that of accompanying leading vocalists of the ranchera (country) genre, Mexico's most popular nationalistic musical expression.

INSTRUMENTATION. At the turn of the century, a typical mariachi consisted of four musicians. While precise instrumentation could vary with each group, regional tendencies existed. The two most prominent mariachi regions were that of central Jalisco, which preferred two violins, vihuela (a small, guitar-like instrument with a convex back and five strings), and guitarrón (a large, six-string bass version of the vihuela); and that of southern Jalisco and Michoacán, which preferred two violins, harp, and guitarra de golpe (the original mariachi guitar).

After the Revolution of 1910, mariachi groups tended to grow in size. Instruments previously associated with specific regional traditions were combined, and existing instruments were doubled. Following a period of experimentation, the instrumentation of the urban mariachi became standardized. The modern classical guitar was adopted, and the vihuela and the guitarrón were retained, while the guitarra de golpe and the harp fell into general disuse.

In the early 1900s, wind instruments were frequently added to the traditionally all-string ensemble. By the 1920s, mariachis in different parts of Mexico were using the cornet. In the 1930s, however, the trumpet had replaced the cornet and had gained a permanent foothold in the mariachi; by the 1940s, the trumpet had become a mariachi institution. The two-trumpet combination popularized by Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa in the early 1950s is the most recent innovation to take place in the standard mariachi instrumentation.

The standard contemporary instrumentation for a full mariachi is two trumpets, three or more violins, a vihuela, a guitar, and a guitarrón. An additional guitar or trumpet is sometimes added, and the basic ensemble is often reduced for economic reasons. All members may sing.

MARIACHI VARGAS. The most important group in the history of mariachi music is Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded in 1898 by Gaspar Vargas in Tecalitlán, Jalisco. In the 1930s, its leadership was taken over by his son, Silvestre Vargas, considered the greatest mariachi organizer and visionary of all time. In 1934, the group moved permanently to Mexico City, where it played a leading role in the evolution of the mariachi. The majority of influential musicians in the genre have passed through its ranks, including arranger Rubén Fuentes and trumpet player Miguel Martinez. Since the 1940s, Mariachi Vargas has been the model ensemble for the urban mariachi tradition, in which its trajectory and influence are without parallel.

MARIACHI MUSIC IN THE UNITED STATES. Mariachi music has become deeply rooted in the United States, where it has taken on unique characteristics and even influenced its Mexican counterpart. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of organized mariachi groups immigrated to Los Angeles, an urban area that has in many ways become to the United States what Mexico City is to Mexico as an urban Mecca of mariachi music. In 1961, Nati Cano organized Los Camperos, which became the best-known U.S. mariachi and the country's pioneer group in popularizing this music among non-Hispanics. In 1969, Los Camperos opened La Fonda restaurant in Los Angeles, the world's first venue designed to showcase a mariachi. Other U.S. groups followed suit, and eventually this concept was adopted in Mexico.

Mariachi Uclatlán, founded in 1961 at the University of California at Los Angeles Institute of Ethnomusicology, pioneered the academic mariachi tradition, and today educational institutions throughout the Southwest offer classes in mariachi music. Mariachi Cobre, founded in Tucson, Arizona in 1971, was the first prominent Mexican-American mariachi group.

In 1979, a U.S. mariachi movement was born at the First international Mariachi Conference held in San Antonio, Texas. Since then, mariachi festivals and conferences have proliferated in the United States; Mexico celebrated its first international festival in 1994. Linda Ronstadt's 1987 album, Canciones de mi padre, heralded the creation of a new audience for mariachi music among non-Hispanics. While Ronstadt is a traditionalist, mariachis such as Sol de Mexico in Los Angeles and Campanas de America in San Antonio seek innovation, combining other musical styles with that of the mariachi.

CONCLUSION. Mariachi music reached its peak in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, it has increasingly become a nostalgia genre, marginalized by the media that initially catapulted it to fame. With the exception of isolated attempts to infuse new vitality into the tradition from outside sources, relatively little new mariachi music is composed or performed today. Nevertheless, the mariachi remains in demand for social functions in Mexican and Mexican-American communities, where it has become a cultural inheritance. The recent revival in the United States has given new life to the mariachi, whose appeal transcends ethnic groups and national borders.

-Jonathan Clark

Printed by permission of the author by Mariachi Publishing Company, 1999-2003

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