Mariachi music as we know it today results from the confluence of several different influences: European styled concert ensembles on haciendas composed of violins, harp, guitars, jawharps and other instruments, simpler coastal folk ensembles whose African influence gives mariachi some of its key rhythmic elements, and the harp and violin ensembles of the tierra caliente. It originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, in the town of Cocula, in the 19th century, the first example cited in print dates from 1880. By the end of the nineteenth century, the vihuela, two violins, and the guitarrón which had replaced the harp, were the instruments of the mariachi(s). Trumpets, now a key part of the mariachi sound were introduced later, during the early days of broadcast radio.
Musicologists and folklorists have argued for years over the origin of mariachi. Standard Spanish dictionaries and encyclopedias name the French word mariage (meaning wedding or marriage) as a possible origin, and date it back to the 1860s, when Maximillian of Habsburg was Emperor of Mexico. This theory was probably first put forward by Alfonso Reyes. Another probable theory of the origin of the word mariachi is that it originated in the language of the Cora, an indigenous people of Nayarit (not Jalisco where the band originated). It may refer to the wood used to make the instruments
Prior to the arrival of Cortes the music of Mexico, played with rattles, drums, reed and clay flutes, and conch-shell horns, was an integral part of religious celebrations. Quickly, however, as Christianity spread, in many areas these instruments gave way to instruments imported by the Spanish: violins, guitars and harps, brass horns, and woodwinds. The Indian and mestizo musicians not only learned to play European instruments, but also to build their own, sometimes giving them shapes and tunings of their own invention.
Music and dance were important elements of Spanish theatrical productions, enormously popular throughout the Spanish speaking world during the colonial period. The typical Spanish theatrical orchestra of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries was comprised of violins (usually two), harp and guitars (or guitar variants). It was from this group that several of the most distinctive regional ensembles of Mexico developed, including the Mariachi.
In the 19th century, many Mariachi were roaming laborers moving from one hacienda to another, often more than the average laborer. With the revolution, however, many of the haciendas were forced to dismiss the mariachi, who then wandered from town to town singing songs (corridos) of revolutionary heroes and enemies, and carrying news from one place to another. The Mariachi took to playing in public venues for tips. One of the most popular of these venues was San Pedro Tlaquepaque in the state of Jalisco, a fashionable place for the residents of Guadalajara to spend the summer.
From the beginning, mariachi music was dance music. The traditional dance technique associated with both the son jalisciense and son jarocho is the zapateado. When dancing the zapateado, which originated in Spain, the performers drive the heels of their boots into the dance-floor, pounding out swift, often syncopated rhythms which complement that of the musical instruments. Another typical mariachi dance, the Jarabe tapatío or Mexican Hat Dance, from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, has become the national dance of Mexico. It is highly stylized, with prescribed movements and costumes. The male wears the classic outfit of the Jalisco horsemen, similar to the outfit of a cowboy, or charro, while the female wears a hand-woven shawl and a bright sequined skirt.
Until the 1930s, Mariachis were semi-professional and almost entirely unknown outside their own region. This began to change when Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded by Gaspar Vargas in 1898, went from Jalisco to Mexico City. President Lázaro Cárdenas invited them to play at his inauguration in 1934, and later to accompany him in his campaign in 1936.
Silvestre Vargas, who had taken over from his father as leader of the Mariachi Vargas in 1928, soon hired a trained musician, Rubén Fuentes, as musical director. Together, Vargas and Fuentes standardized musical arrangements for many of the popular sones and insisted on the use of written music, which greatly facilitated the exchange among different mariachi bands. Their arrangements were used by the great singers of their time, including Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solís and José Alfredo Jiménez. Influenced by jazz and Cuban music in the 1950s, they introduced the trumpet into the standard ensemble, which now included six to eight violins, a guitarrón, a vihuela, a guitar, two trumpets, and occasionally a harp as well. Trumpets were also introduced to mariachi music to accommodate the technical limitations of music recording equipment available for the cinema. However, nowadays trumpets have become an essential part of the signature mariachi sound, as exemplified by the opening notes of "El Son de la Negra."
Aided by the advent of radio, television, and the movies, mariachi music went on to become a definitive part of Mexican culture, and the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán appeared in over 200 films in the 1940s and 1950s, often considered the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.
Prior to the 1930s, photographs show early mariachis dressed in calzones de manta, and huaraches, homespun white cotton pants and shirts and leather sandals, the clothes worn by most peasants in Jalisco. During the 1930s, however, many mariachi took to wearing the traje de charro, consisting of a waist-length jacket and tightly fitted wool pants which open slightly at the ankle to fit over a short riding boot. Both pants and jacket are often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs, or silver buttons in a variety of shapes. This outfit is often complemented by a large bow-tie, a wide belt and a large sombrero. It is said that General Porfirio Díaz ordered a mariachi band to wear charro suits while playing for the United States Secretary of State. If true, this may be the source of traditional dress for mariachi bands.
The mariachi tradition was further extended to a widespread mainstream audience in the United States when popular American folk rock singer Linda Ronstadt realized her dream of making a record of Mexican Canciones in 1987. Ronstadt came from a leading Arizona ranch family who had a long tradition of making and singing Mexican folk music. In 1987, her Canciones De Mi Padre disc was a surprise smash hit with the American public and brought Mariachi music to a level of recognition and credibility it had not seen before north of the border. The album went on to multi-platinum status, becoming at the time the biggest selling non-English language disc in United States history. It also spawned a successful videocassette of Linda's elaborate stage show which was later released on DVD. Ronstadt went on to record a sequel titled "Mas Canciones."
It is important to remember the son-and other types of Mariachi music- is not just music to be played and sung. From the very start it was music to be danced.
The traditional dance technique associated with both the son jalisciense and son jarocho is the zapateado, a distinctive type of footwork that originated in Spain. When dancing the zapateado the performers skillfully drive the heels of their boots or shoes into the dance-floor, pounding out swift, often syncopated rhythms which complement the different rhythm of the musical instruments. The zapateado can literally reduce even the most resistant dance floor to splinters because of the force with which it is danced.
Another kind of music related to the son and intimately connected with a particular dance is the jarabe. The jarabe, which has many regional variations, is really a medley of dance pieces, including sones, danzas, jotas, and polkas. No discussion of Mariachi dance would be complete without mentioning the famous Jarabe Tapatio - the Mexican Hat Dance. Associated with Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, it has become the national dance of Mexico. It is highly stylized, with prescribed movements and costumes. The male wears the classic outfit the Jalisco horsemen or charro, while the female the China, wears a hand-woven shawl and a bright sequined skirt.The traditional dance technique associated with both the son jalisciense and son jarocho is the zapateado, a distinctive type of footwork that originated in Spain. When dancing the zapateado the performers skillfully drive the heels of their boots or shoes into the dance-floor, pounding out swift, often syncopated rhythms which complement the different rhythm of the musical instruments. The zapateado can literally reduce even the most resistant dance floor to splinters because of the force with which it is danced.
By the 1930's Mariachi musicians had begun wearing the same traje de charro, consisting of a waist-length jacket and tightly fitted wool pants which open slightly at the ankle to fit over a short riding boot. Both pants and jacket are often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs, or silver buttons in a variety of shapes. Prior to the 1930's, photographs show early Mariachis dressed in calzones de manta, and huaraches, homespun white cotton pants and shirts and leather sandals, the clothes worn by most peasants in Jalisco.
Although the roots of the Mariachi go back hundreds of years, there are no Bachs or Beethovens in its early history because Mariachi music was the music of country people. Until the 1930's Mariachi groups were local and semi-professional. They were almost entirely unknown outside their own region.
This began to change about 60 years ago, when the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán n, founded by Gaspar Vargas in 1898, went from Jalisco to Mexico City. They were invited to play at the inauguration in 1934 of populist President Lá zaro Cárdenas, one of whose great interests was to foster the native culture of Mexico. Catching the Presidents enthusiasm, urban sophisticates took the folk arts to their hearts, and the Mariachi Vargas instantly became the toast of the town. The initial success was only the beginning. Silvestre Vargas, who had taken over from his father as leader of the Mariachi Vargas in 1928, soon hired a trained musician, Rubín Fuentes, as musical director.
Fuentes, still actively involved with the Mariachi Vargas more than fifty years later, is one of the towering figures in the development of the Mariachi. With the help of Silvestre Vargas, he standardized the arrangements of many of the traditional sones composed many exceptional new huapangos, and wrote arrangements for many of the legendary song writers and singers of his generation, including Pedro Infante, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Lola Beltrán, and José Alfredo Jiménez. By the 1950's he insisted that all his musicians read music. These innovations changed the way Mariachi music moved from one group to another. Gone was the total reliance of the musicians on their ears to pick up new songs, and techniques.
With this giant step toward professionalism coinciding with the development of recordings, radio and film, the Mariachi Vargas was able to become the ideal that all other groups would emulate. With the addition of two trumpets, a classical guitar and more violins, by the 1950's the Mariachi ensemble had become a complete, adaptable orchestra, with the ability to retain its traditional base while it was assimilating new musical ideas and styles. The importance of Mariachi Vargas cannot be overestimated. Its arrangements have become the definitive statements of what the Mariachi should be.