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Introduction to Mariachi Music
When beginning a discussion of the mariachi, it is helpful to start
with the word "mariachi" itself. Many linguists have theorized
that the word comes from the French word "mariage," (meaning
marriage). However, linguists now believed that the word "mariachi" may have come from one or
more of the following sources: a word
for a certain tree that exists in Cocula, Jalisco, Mexico; a word for a wooden
dance platform made from the same tree; or a word for musical groups that the
Coca Indians have always had in their language. The idea of the French origin
of the word "mariachi" began during the French invasion of Mexico in the
1860s when the French observed musical groups (small string ensembles)
performing at Mexican wedding ceremonies. The theory of the French origin
of the word continues to be popular in many sectors, perhaps because of its
romantic connotations. The history and evolution of "mariachi" is described at
length in Hermes Rafael's book Origen e Historia del Mariachi (see resource list).
Mariachi Song Forms
The music of the mariachi band is a mixture of different indigenous, as
well as European and African, elements. From Europe, it borrowed many of
the dance forms such as the waltz and the fandango
. From Africa, it borrowed
dance rhythms and melodic ideas. The forms found in mariachi music are,
without a doubt, the most important element of the style. Mariachi song
forms (such as the bolero
, canción ranchera
, and danzón
are always dictated by the rhythmic patterns that are performed by the guitar
section of the group. This is one of the few musical genres in which text does
not indicate form.
The mariachi band is Mexico's only true surviving folkloric ensemble. The
group itself has changed very little since the addition of the trumpets in the
middle of the 1930s. The songs that the group performs have changed, but
only to meet the demands of the listening public. A good mariachi band has
a minimum repertory of at least one thousand songs. Top-flight groups have
song lists that are two or three times as long. On top of that, a strong mariachi
musician must know three or four arrangements of each of these songs.
Mariachi performers are expected to know the music that is on the mind
of the entire Mexican population.
Mariachi music is one of the few styles of indigenous music that serves both a
utilitarian and an entertainment function. The mariachi band is used for
many different occasions, such as dances, weddings, and funerals. It
is not unusual to find the group serenading a young woman on the occasion
of her birthday, celebrating a saint's day, or singing to the mother of one of
the band members on her birthday. People who enjoy mariachi music like
it because it rekindles old memories, takes them to places that are far away,
or brings back scenes of childhood.
The mariachi tradition, as it is practiced in Mexico, is one of male
dominance. In the United States, women are more openly accepted as performers of this musical
genre; indeed, women are an important force in the American tradition of Mexican mariachi music.
If it were not for Linda Ronstadt, the contemporary vocalist who popularized
mariachi music in her recordings, the genre may have have been relegated
to a bottom shelf in the musical lexicon of the world.
The following instruments can be found in a mariachi band:
- Violin. When used in the mariachi band, the violin is not altered in any way
from its traditional use.
- Vihuela. The vihuela is a creation of the Coca Indians of Southwestern
Jalisco in Mexico. It has five strings and a bowed back, and it is slightly larger than a
ukelele. It is played with a thumb pick in the rasqueado (strummed) style and is
the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the mariachi band.
- Guitar. A standard guitar is used (not altered in any way) and serves to
supplement the vihuela as a rhythmic element in the mariachi band. The guitar
and the vihuela play the same rhythmic patterns and keep a strong foundation
for the group. Typically, a guitar is used in a mariachi band about 98 percent of the time.
- Guitarrón. The guitarrón is the bass foundation of the group and is the
single most important element in the mariachi band. It serves not only as the bass of the
group, but it gives the group its characteristic sound. A
rule of thumb is that if there is no guitarrón, there should be no performance.
- Trumpet. A standard trumpet is used (not altered in any way). At various
times, the trumpet players are asked to perform with cup mutes.
- Other instruments. There are occasions when instruments such as the flute,
French horn, accordion, and organ are used. These instruments are used for
The mariachi band contains the following parts: the violins and vocals are the
top voice, the rhythm section is the harmony, and the guitarrón
is the bass
(like the baroque "basso continue
"). The traditional mariachi has six to eight violins,
two to three trumpets, one vihuela, one guitar, and one guitarrón
Preparing to Teach Mariachi Music
When teaching the mariachi music to a class, use the following guidelines:
- Perform only the most traditional mariachi songs (do not perform arrangements of pop,
rock, or other songs that are not in the Mexican tradition).
- Use only authentic instruments (do not substitute a string bass for the
guitarrón or a guitar for the vihuela).
- Choose simple song forms when first learning to play mariachi music,
preferably a ranchem or a son polka.
- Adhere strictly to the rhythmic patterns of the song forms.
- Make musicality and adherence to the mariachi style the most important
- Limit the size of the ensemble so it does not grow too large.
- Tell students not to improvise when they forget their part; instead, they should do
one of two things either not play or, in the case of
the violinists, fake the bowing in the same direction as the rest of the section
(violinists always bow in the same direction regardless, of the part they play).
- When in doubt, seek out performers of mariachi music for advice.
- Always keep a fun and relaxed atmosphere in the rehearsal (this is the
There are no formal books in Spanish for learning traditional mariachi music.
It is an art form that has always been transmitted orally. The traditional method
of learning mariachi music is to learn the technique of the instrument while the
repertoire is learned. Although mariachi music uses solfege for indicating keys
or individual notes, it should be learned by ear from the very first lessons. By
learning the music by ear, the performer is able to capture the nuance and essence
of mariachi music. (This is not to say that performers of mariachi music should
not study their instruments and score reading in private lessons or school
bands, orchestras, or choirs.)
Over the years, the following standard terminology for the mariachi has
- al bajon (down beat)
- primera (first part)
- segunda (second part)
- tercera (third part)
- que tono (what key is the piece to be performed in)
- pa bajo (down bow)
- pa arriba (up bow)
- mas redo (faster)
- mas despacio (slower)
- chamba (job or performance)
Learning the art of playing mariachi music meets many of the National
Standards for Music Education. However, mariachi music seems to
most easily target Achievement Standard 2e (grades 5-8) and Achievement
Standard 2a (grades 9-12) under Content Standard 2 ("Performing on instruments,
alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music"), where the student needs
to "perform with expression and technical accuracy" and include some songs
"performed from memory." On stage, mariachi music is always performed from
memory. Music is used only when an arrangement is new or when the band is accompanied
by a solo artist.
The performance of mariachi music also requires that the students perform a
variety of song forms (the cancion ranchera
well as perform on instruments, sing solo songs, and sing in a chorus. It is
vital to keep in mind that mariachi performers must be able to sing,
regardless of the instrument they play in the ensemble. If a student is too shy or
has not developed a voice for singing, he or she should still be encouraged to
sing as a chorus singer within the group. Musicians in the mariachi band need
to be taught from the beginning that singing is a vital and important part of
participating in the ensemble.
Harpole, Patricia W. Los Mariachis! An Introduction to Mexican Mariachi Music.
Mark Fogelquist, Director El Mariachi Uclatlan. Danbury, CT: World Music Press (Judith
Cook Tucker, Publisher, Box 2565, Danbury, CT 06813; 203-748-1131), 1991.
Rafael, Hermes. Origen e Historia del Mariachi. Segunda Edicion: Editorial
Katun, S.A. (Republica de Colombia 6) primer piso, Centro, Telephone: 529-38-68), 1983.
El Mariachi. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. Polydor/Polygram MCRN
1082-839-332-1. Fiesta en Jalisco. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. RCA Victor
CSM-1863. Ruben Fuentes: 50 Anos con su Musicay Arreglos para el Mejor Mariachi delMundo,
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitan. Mercury CD 314 526 223-2.
Sources of Books and Music
102 W. San Francisco St., Suite 20
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
La Casa Del Libro
2802 E. 22nd Street
Tucson, Arizona 85713
4302 S. 6th Ave.
Tucson, Arizona 85714
Yolys Music Shop
3366 S. 6th Ave.
Tucson, Arizona 85713
Clinicians and Performers
PO Box 6074
Carmel, CA 93921
William J. Gradante
6416 Waverly Way
Fort Worth, Texas 76116
Juan de Dios Noperi
431 W. 26th Street
Tucson, Arizona 85713
Excerpted from Making Connections: Multicultural Music and the National Standards.
Integrating Hispanic Music Throughout Curriculum
Mexican American Mariachi Music
Traditional Circle Game from Puerto Rico
Making a Maraca
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