If there is one symbol of Mexico more enduring
than tequila, the fiesta and the mustachioed bandito, it must
surely be the Mariachi musicians, dressed in the outrageous finery
of their sombreros and Charro suits, playing and singing endless
songs of love and passion.
Mariachi bands include anything from two to
a small army of violinists, often classically trained and armed
with a huge repertoire and impressive technique. Playing usually
in the open air (perhaps that's why we don't see many of them
in Britain!), and competing with an unrestrained trumpet section,
the violinists need a powerful tone and strong vibrato. They usually
play harmony with one another, with the trumpets doing counter
melodies. Grace notes are used extensively, and pizzicato is very
The roots of mariachi lie deep in Mexico's own history, the name
probably deriving from the Coca Indian word for musician, in use
at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1529. The Indians, who
already had their own 5-note musical tradition using drums, flutes
and whistles, were taught European music by the Spanish friars
as part of the process of conversion to Catholicism. They were
given harps, violins and guitars, and these rapidly became integrated
into musical life both religious and secular.
By the late 1700's the Son had begun to evolve, a song form using
topical or satirical rhyming couplets, with the violin usually
leading the melody. This gradually took on the mantle of a national
musical idiom, incorporating elements of Indian, Spanish and Negro
culture, and during the war for independence in 1810-21 it became
a symbol for struggle, freedom and national pride.
The first organised groups began around the middle of the 19th
Century; in 1850 Amado Vargas started a band with two violins,
harp and guitarra de golpe (a small 5-stringed guitar). His son
Gaspar took charge in 1898, calling the group Mariachi Vargas
de Tecalitlan, and this was to prove the model and inspiration
for all subsequent mariachi groups. Around the turn of the century
mariachi arrived in Mexico City, and thrived with the introduction
of radio in the 1920's. The vihuela (a 5-stringed guitar) was
added to the standard line-up, along with the trumpets which are
now fundamental to the mariachi sound..More violins were added
to balance the trumpets.
The true golden age of mariachi arrived in the 40's and 50's with
the arrival of the motion picture. Mariachi Vargas alone appeared
in over 200 films. By now the increasing sophistication of the
music was matched by the magnificently overstated costumes. These
charro (Mexican cowboy) suits consist of ankle boots, tight trousers
with buttons down the side, a short jacket and a large bowtie,
all covered with silver spangles and topped off with a huge sombrero.
Not an outfit for the fainthearted!
The modern mariachi band typically consists of at least 8 players;
2 trumpets, 3 violins, vihuela, guitarron (a type of acoustic
bass guitar with a huge body and short neck), and possibly a harp
or guitar de golpe. Bands have a large and wide-ranging repertoire,
reflecting the diversity of social situations at which they are
called to perform.
The most important category of tune remains the Son Jalisciense
(from Jalisco). These have a jaunty rhythm,typically alternating
between 6/8 and 3/4 time. One of the best known is La Negra;
others include El Gusto and La Vaquilla. Different
regional forms include the Son Jaracho ( from Veracruz) with songs
such as El Cascabel and La Bamba, (popularised by
Ritchie Valens), and Son Abejeno, rhythmically complex songs from
the lowlands such as El Cuatro and Las Olas. There
is a form of dance known as the Jarabe which uses a string of
sones; the best known of these is the Mexican Hat Dance
(Jarabe Tapatio), so overplayed that it could be considered
the Mexican equivalent of Danny Boy.
The Son Huasteco from South East Mexico is also known as the Huapango,
with songs like Malaguena and Serenata Huasteca played by fiddle-lead trios. Son Arribeno is played by four-piece
bands with two fiddles, a huapanguera (large-bodied guitar) and
a singer/poet. They appear in a Topada competition at weddings
or fiestas; two groups will be seated facing each other on raised
benches with the audience in between. They will take it in turns
to play, with the singer improvising verses between the fiddle-led
melodies. The singer will start by elaborately praising his opponent,
but as the night wears on the musical insults begin to fly as
they pour scorn on each other. Audience reaction will finally
determine the winner.
Polkas, lively dances in 2/4 time, are important in mariachi music.
One of the best known, featuring extensive pizzicato from the
violins, is Jesusita En Chihuahua. Waltzes (Vals) include Cielito Lindo, Julio and Sobe las Olas. Pasadobles-
what we might think of as Spanish bullfight music- also feature
with such tunes as Espana Cani and La Virgen de la Macarena.
Rancheras, finally, are nostalgic, romantic songs such as Volver and Por un Amor.
of the mariachi violin
Mariachi Vargas, now well beyond its hundredth birthday, is still
regarded as the premier mariachi group. Others include Mariachi
Reyes del Aserradero, who concentrate on traditional sones from
Jalisco; Mariachi Cobre (currently residing in Disney World, Florida),
and Mariachi America de Jesus Rodriguez de Hijar. US based Lauro
Sobrino ("Queen of the Mariachi Violin") is one of
the few female instrumentalists to have made an impact in mariachi,
and is prominent in education and publishing within the genre.
A great boost was given to the international profile of mariachi
when in 1987 Linda Ronstadt released an album "Canciones
de mi Padre" in honour of her Mexican roots, and toured with
Despite its importance, mariachi is by no means
the only fiddling style found in Mexico. Juan Reynoso ("The
Paganini of the Hotlands") is a virtuoso fiddler, who, in
his late 80's, leads his own band in the traditional style ofTierra Caliente in the southwest of the country. He is accompanied
only by guitar and tamborita (a small wooden drum) so that the
virtuosity of his playing is displayed far more than if he was
a mariachi. Though self-taught, he has an advanced sense of harmony,
and uses double stops almost continuously, dancing with great
agility up and down the full range of the fiddle
Finally, we must mention the fiddling of the native peoples of
Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century they brought
with them the Rabel, a small 3-stringed violin, and the Indians
took to this more eagerly than the authorities had expected. By
1555 it was considered a disruptive influence and was banned throughout
New Spain. This naturally had the opposite effect intended, and
in rural areas native versions of the fiddle continued to thrive
and diversify into various regional forms. Brazil has its own variation, the Rabeca- a 3-stringed fiddle similar in construction to the European rebec.
The Huichol Indians of west central Mexico have a fiddle of white
wood, with two horsehair and two metal strings. This Raweali is
used in magical rituals, and legend has it that it came to them
direct from Santo Cristo (the Divine Christ), who won a fiddle
contest using the instrument. Surely the only known case of the
devil not having the best instrument and all the best tunes!
Chris Haigh is a fiddle player based in London; he has a large repertoire of bluegrass, old time and Western Swing fiddle tunes, and performs either solo, with a singer/guitarist, with a larger country rock band, or with the barn-dance band QUICKSILVER. He has worked with Leon Hunt's Southern Exposure and The Daily Planet, The Coal Porters, Orange Blossom Sound and the Charlie Boston band. He gives lessons and workshops on jazz and bluegrass fiddle, and has published several fiddle books, including The Fiddle Handbook Tbo.
Here he is with a pretend mariachi band on the set of TV sitcom My Family: