Mariachi: the music and musicians

Mariachi: the music and musicians

Mariachi music is a rich tradition, as Mexican as Cinco de Mayo, tacos and sunny beaches. Everyone has heard the blaring trumpets, strumming guitars and rich harmonies, but what about the history of this unique musical genre?

Mariachi Instruments and Dress

A traditional mariachi band consists of two trumpets, three violins, one guitar, one vihuela (a smallish, five-stringed guitar), one guitarrón (a bass guitar) and, in some instances, a harp. Larger bands will add more trumpets, guitars and violin players and on rare occasions other instruments, such as a flute, accordion, saxophone, harmonica or others, but these other instruments are not considered traditional.

Mariachi bands are as well known for their dress as their instruments. The musicians typically wear matching bright vests, jackets and pants adorned with dazzling silver buttons and trim. They also favor wide, traditional sombreros. This dress is traditional for charros, Mexican cowboys from the Jalisco area.

The History of Mariachi

Mariachi music originated in the western Mexican state of Jalisco sometime in the nineteenth century. It was a local folk music: small bands of peasant musicians would get together to play for local festivals or at the homes of wealthy landowners.

Some of these bands would even move from town to town, playing on holidays or for tips in the central plazas of the towns they visited. Over the years, the instrumentation and style became quite distinct.

From 1910 to 1920, Mexico was devastated by a bloody civil war known as the Mexican Revolution. The emerging music form was quickly caught up in the passion of the revolution, and to this day it is common to hear mariachi bands play songs about Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and other heroes of this struggle. It was during this time that the mariachi bands adopted their bright, colorful costumes.

Mariachi in the USA

After the 1848 war between the United States and Mexico, Mexico ceded much of the American southwest and west to the United States. But this area had distinctly Mexican roots and was a popular destination for immigrants fleeing the revolution or, later, searching for jobs and opportunities. These immigrants brought mariachi with them, playing it at quinceañeras (15th birthday parties for girls) and other festivities. Today, mariachi is a definite part of the culture of the US southwest.

Themes and Music in Mariachi

Many mariachi bands play a variety of traditional Mexican music, including boleros (ballads), pasodobles (two-step) and waltzes, among others. Familiar tunes such as “La Bamba” and “La Cucaracha” are mariachi staples. In addition to the revolution, mariachi songs are often about dramatic tales, love and life.