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What’s With All the Racket? A History of Mariachi

Caitlin Deegan – September 8, 2014

The precise meaning and origin of the word Mariachi is debated among scholars – some say the word is a variation on the French mirage, meaning marriage as the music of mariachi was frequently played at weddings. Others claim the word has roots which may reflect the name of the wood (Pilla or Cirmio) used by a tribe of indigenous peoples in what is now modern day Mexico (coincidentally, this wood is used to make guitars, an instrument synonymous with mariachi). Regardless of its precise meaning, mariachi is one of the most invigorating and enthralling musical styles in the world.  

Mariachi music is deeply rooted in the culture and spirit of Mexico – in its early form, mariachi was played during religious celebrations using instruments like rattles, drums, and conch shells.  It was only after the arrival of the Spanish that the more familiar instrumental make-up of mariachi bands took form with the introduction of violins, guitars, and brass instruments. Predominantly a folk music, the Spanish also introduced the concept of “groups” into the mariachi tradition.

When considering mariachi, one finds it to be music of complementary contrasts, with a profoundly balanced harmony. Within a traditional mariachi band, there is a melding of cultures:  European instruments, like the violin and trumpet, sing in synchronization with traditional native instruments. The guitarró and vihuela, which in their contemporary form are strictly Mexican, have European roots. Thus, to hear mariachi is to hear the felicitous marriage of two cultures, both distinct yet working in partnership. The deep, throaty guitarró keeps rhythm alongside the bright ringing of the violin; the verve and vitality of the vihuela, a type of guitar, cries out alongside the bold but restrained trumpet. Contrasting elements and contrasting cultures come together to create the unique energy of mariachi.

One finds another important instrument in the human body – dance has always been a key facet of mariachi, providing tangible expression to the exuberance of the music.  The footwork associated with mariachi is known as zapateado, which originated in Spain. There are many regional variations to zapateado, which relies heavily on the rhythmic pounding of heels into the dance floor, sometimes with enough gusto to reduce the floor to splinters.

Until the 1930’s, mariachi groups were local and intimate – mariachi began as the music of the countryside and of the people.  Groups were small and semi-professional, highly influenced by their surroundings and prone to playing locally.  In fact, the garb worn by modern mariachi bands is meant to echo the farm clothing of countryside peasants.  The first mariachi group to gain widespread fame was Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. The group was invited by then Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas to play at his inauguration in 1934. The notoriety Mariachi Vargas gained catapulted the musical style into the annals of history, transforming mariachi from localized, country music, into highly organized, professional music with global appeal.

Scholars are unable to agree on the meaning of the word mariachi, but that disagreement is fitting. The music of mariachi bands cannot be confined by definition, it must be heard and felt to be understood. A music which began as the highly individual self-expression of the insular countryside and local peoples transformed into a beloved genre which reflects the spirit and passion of Mexico. Only through performance can audiences truly appreciate the resonance and soul of a musical style centuries in the making, a music which spans generations, cultures, and hearts.