Mariachi has been the definitive representation of the revolutionary spirit and history of Mexico since its inception in the 18th Century. Originating in Cocula, Jalisco, Mexico, hundreds of years ago, mariachi’s popularity continues to spread across the world. Following rote traditions, today’s groups try to perfect the songs their heroes, like Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, mastered previously. A typical lineup consists of three violins; two trumpets; one Mexican guitar; a high-pitched, five-string guitar called a vihuela; and one guitarrón, a relatively small acoustic bass. Sometimes a harp is used. The players, usually about seven to nine members deep, dress in silver studded charroor traditional Mexican cowboyoutfits with wide-brimmed hats. Mariachis generally play celebrations, whether for a wedding or a 15-year-old girl’s birthday party.
Although mariachi music is most often played during good times, the subject matter is anything but simple. The songs are always about the trials and tribulations of the Mexican people. The music acted like a living, breathing newspaper to the communities the mariachis visited. For instance, during the Mexican Revolution, townspeople would receive the news from the mariachis wandering from town to town. Jerry, a member of Upstate New York’s Mariachi Citalli, fills us in on what it takes to play in a mariachi band.
What does a mariachi novice need to know to start learning about the genre?
Jerry: It takes a lot of listening and practicing, since a lot of the music is improvised. You may have a repertoire of 100 songs, but even that’s not close enough. Clients and listeners expect you to know any song they throw at you, and we must comply.
Who are the most famous or influential mariachis?
The most influential mariachi bands are Mariachi Vargas and Mariachi Sol de Mexico. Just about everyone else are copies of these two.
What is the most memorable gig you have ever played?
Once we played [at] a rare ritual. It was the anniversary of the death [of someone] who supposedly loved mariachi music. There was a medium invoking the presence of the dead woman and was supposed to take over the medium’s body. When it did, the medium acted as if she was the dead woman saying hello to everyone and singing with us, as if she had come to visit and be there at the ceremony. We had to play nonstop while all that was happening.
How did you get involved in playing the music?
My father and oldest brother were musicians, too. Most of us started at very early age.
What are the different styles of mariachi, and what makes them unique?
To be honest, most mariachi bands, big and small, try as hard as possible to be exact copies of Mariachi Vargas. It is more a way of respecting culture than anything. On the other hand, solo artists have given a modern touch to the music, making it more commercial. Artists such as Pedro Fernandez and Pepe Aguilar are pioneers. Even though the general public loves this new style, many mariachi bands don’t embrace it as much.
What is the most misunderstood part of mariachi music?
That it is annoying and ridiculous. For that, we have to thank Hollywood for stereotyping mariachi music as a way to annoy a person. Mariachi bands are hired for a wide variety of important gigs. From the Plaza Hotel to the United Nations, you name it. Presidents, millionaires, intellectuals and artists. From churches, military bases, museums, theaters, rallies, universities, TV, radio and what not. And not only in the Latino circle: About 70 percent of our jobs are for Americans and Europeans that have nothing to do with the Latino community.
What is the future of mariachi?
Mariachi music will stay forever. It just doesn’t go away and people don’t stop loving it. It has been like that since it first emerged. Old people love it, young people use it as a medium to fall in love and kids love it at sight.