August 31, 2010


This weekend, over 450 mariachis participated in a parade around Guadalajara, in Jalisco. They were here, from as far afield as the Slovak Republic, Japan, Canada, Australia, the USA and several South American countries, to enjoy the 17th Mariachi and Charreria Festival. They were joined in the parade by traditional dancers and charros (cowboys), creating a colorful and vibrant display of Mexican culture. It was an event which drew over 200,000 spectators and, despite fears about violence in the area, passed without incident.

The Mariachis can be found all over Mexico. Often in distinctive sombrero hats and studded charro uniforms, they serenade diners in restaurants; entertain shoppers in the malls and markets; drift along streets, causing a spring in the step of all those passing by. They create the magical atmosphere of Mexico City's Garbaldi Plaza; and many still flood to watch the most talented of all perform their concerts. Mexicans frequently hire Mariarchis to play at weddings or on other special occasions. To an international audience, the marachi music IS the music of Mexico. It is what they hum to themselves, far away back home, trying to rekindle the feeling of their Mexican vacation.

Mariachi music was born in the state of Nayarit, in Western Mexico, during the colonial period. In its traditional sense (there has been a lot of experimentation over the years), it is played by an ensemble using a vihuela, a guitarrón, violins, trumpets, an acoustic guitar and, sometimes, a harp. In fact, it is considered that, without the vihuela and guitarrón, the band is not Mariachi. Often, but not always, there is a vocalist or two. It is noteworthy for the Grito Mexicano, moments when the whole ensemble shout out a refrain or call, like 'AY YA YAY YA!' or 'tequila!'

When Mariachi began, it was seen as scandalous. Just as parents in the 1950s worried about the influence of rock'n'roll, and their modern day counterparts panic about death rock metal, then the colonial and post-colonial elders protested the Mariachi. The instruments were mostly Spanish in origin and had been used to accompany church services. The vihuela and guitarrón provided a backdrop of music by which the Catholic devout could take Communion. Then the younger generation started using them for popular music.

These instruments, perceived as religious, were now used to sing songs about machismo, revolutionary heroes, love, death and politics. Some of these were even anti-clerical. Priests railed against the Mariachi from their pulpits, exorting Mama and Papa to rein in their wayward youngsters. Despite, or because of, this, the Mariachi flourished. Then, as Mexico gained independence from the Spanish, Mariachi grew in popularity as something distinctly Mexican. The songs became used to spread news from village to village, town and city. The bands played at Independence Day celebrations everywhere; and also during the 1934 presidential election campaign of Lázaro Cárdenas.

But it was the advent of movies that truly pushed the Mariachi into the hearts of Mexicans; as well as linking this genre of music with Mexico for all foreigners. Mexican movies, and the appearance of Mexicans in Hollywood movies, promoted the idea of macho Mexican men, with charming smiles and hearts of gold. Idols, such as Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, turned their smouldering gazes towards the camera, quickening the heartbeats of women all over the world. Their Latino hot, tough guy image was underscored with Mariachi music.

It's still happening. Robert Rodriguez's directorial debut, in 1993, began with the first of his 'Mariachi Trilogy'. 'El Mariachi', 'Desperado' and 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico'. They went on to achieve global acclaim, Hollywood 'player' status, several movie awards and a lot of profit for Rodriguez, as well as launching the American film careers of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. Mariachi music worked its magic again.

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