The only thing more Mexican than tequila is mariachi and it seems a shame to
have one without the other.
Mariachi goes beyond music, it is the sum of a cultural revolution expressed
through a group of musicians, dressed in popular clothing (most recently
charro suits) which encompasses the essence of Mexico and its people. It is
something cultural, spiritual and traditional that is unique to this
country, an experience not to be missed.
The word mariachi refers to the musicians now commonly seen in restaurants
or strolling the streets, dressed in silver studded charro outfits with wide
brimmed hats playing a variety of instruments which include violins,
guitars, basses, vihuelas (a 5 string guitar) and trumpets.
Their songs speak about machismo, love, betrayal, death, politics,
revolutionary heroes and even animals (one particularly famous song is
The mariachi originated in the southern part of the state of Jalisco
sometime in the 19th century. No one is sure where the name comes from
although a variety of theories have been postulated and, depending on which
best fits the postulators needs, are adhered to.
The original theory held that mariachi was derived from the French word for
wedding - mariage, because of the type of music played at these events. The
only problem with this theory is that the music originates in a part of
Mexico the French never visited and, even it they had, it began before their
arrival in 1864.
Another theory states that the word comes from the indigenous name of the
Pilla or Cirimo tree, whose wood is used to make guitars. If this were true
then the word mariachi would be applied to the instrument itself and not to
those who play it.
It has also been suggested that the name comes from a festival in honor of a
virgin known as Maria H. (mah-ree-ah AH-chay) at which musicians played and
that over time they were given this name.
The truth is that no one knows where the name originated, but it is one
which is associated with a great deal of prestige not only in Mexico, but
around the world.
The origins of the mariachi itself (the group, culture, music, etc.) are not
much easier to trace. The mariachi is the sum of a cultural evolution which
has taken place over the last century or so in Mexico
Although the indigenous tribes of Mexico made music with flutes, drums and
whistles, there is no clear link between the indigenous music and the
mariachi. The instruments originally used by the mariachi were those
introduced by the Spaniards - violins, guitars, vihuelas, harps, etc.
These instruments were intended to be used during masses but the criollos
(Mexicans of Spanish descent) began using them to make popular music as
well, much to the chagrin of the priests, since they were used to accompany
some of the more scandalous, satirical or anticlerical couplets of the
Mariachi music thrived with the support of the people. The criollos of the
19th century did all they could to wipe out every last trace of the Spanish
presence in Mexico and, by doing so, supported the mariachi music.
Mariachis could be seen wearing traditional workmen's clothes - white pants
and shirt and a straw hat, and traveling around looking for work. Most
commonly they would find employment at any of the haciendas where they would
earn more than the average laborer.
With the revolution, many of the haciendas were forced to let the mariachis
go. They would then wander from town to town singing songs of revolutionary
heroes and enemies, carrying news from one place to another.
Still not enjoying the same position they had before, the mariachis took to
playing in public venues for a fee. One of the most popular of these was San
Pedro Tlaquepaque in the state of Jalisco, a fashionable place for the
residents of Guadalajara to spend their summers.
Since they were playing for a fee they were forced to add new elements to
their music and to expand their repertoire to include waltzes and polkas.
By the early part of this century the mariachi began to regain its
popularity. The most prized of the mariachis were still those from the state
of Jalisco, particularly the areas of Cocula and Tecaltitlan. They
represented Mexico to the people during the Independence day celebrations in
Mexico City in 1933 as well as during Lazaro Cardenas' election campaign in
With the advent of radio and television their popularity continued to grow.
Recording contracts were signed and they were paired with famous singers
like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. Due to the popularity of jazz and
Cuban music the trumpet was adopted, pushing the violins into second place
and, in some cases, replacing the harp.
Movies were made which represented Mexico as a place populated with truly
macho men whose live revolved around the charro, tequila and, of course, the
Today, mariachi music is played around the world in places as far away as
Japan and Europe. This integral part of Mexico's culture and history is
celebrated each September in its birth place, Jalisco.