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The Magic of Mariachis
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Jesus Alvarado
The border interpretation of the soft drink slogans, "You got the right one!" won $15,000 for a local man this past year. He recorded an unusual musical group for a national competition--mariachis! Their spirited rendition won national recognition for our traditional border music.
Just as the singing cowboy of the silver screen epitomized the romantic West, the mariachi musicians represent the culture and tradition of the borderland. With its roots in Mexico, the modern musical group grows and changes with generations of Mexican-Americans.
The Coca Indians who lived in the hills of the central part of Jalisco, knows as Cocula, are credited with the origin of the mariachi. In the early 16th century they celebrated many festive occasions with music made with drumlike boxes, bone flutes and rhythm instruments made from skulls and pottery.
Around 1531 the Cocas combined their native music with the Spanish harp and violin. Then in 1576 the guitarilla, the small guitar with only four strings, was added for a unique sound.
The word "mariachi" first meant "tree" to the Cocas and then later came to mean "wooden floor," where people danced to the music of this tribe. Among dances originated by this tribe is the Jarabe Tapatío,a Coca dance now considered the national dance of Mexico. Thus, the name "mariachi" has long been associated with dancing.
Mariachi music was to become a Mexican tradition. The guitarrón, a six-string bass guitar, were invented in the early part of the 17th century. These instruments provided a sound unique to the mariachis and are two instruments still made only in Mexico.
These instruments and others were made by skilled craftsmen from Cocula. To this day, Coculenses teach their children the ways of fine instrument making. At one time the vihuela and guitarrón required strings made of tripas de gato , or catgut. The tripas gave the instrument a very unusual sound but only lasted for two or three days.
Through the centuries more and more natives became interested in music. They learned to play has their fathers taught them, by ear. Musicians played and sang songs describing love, sorrow, famous deeds and heroes, horses and homes. Theirs was the "country music" of Mexico.
In the 1880s small groups of mariachis known as violines del cerro or "violins of the hills" began searching out occasions to play their music. They dressed in their best clothing consisting of a white shirt and pants with a red sash around the waist worn with simple sandals, large straw hats with ball fringe and a red sarape or black cotton blanket folded in half and draped over one shoulder. The dashing mariachi outfits we know today were to come much later.
In 1990s mariachis established their territory by traveling to nearby ranchers. In September, 1905, Juan Villaseñor, a ranch supervisor from the area of Cocula, took a group to Mexico City to play for President General Porfirio Diaz in celebration of "fiestas patrias" the 16th of September. This was the beginning of an Independence Day tradition that would grow stronger by the decade.
The 1940s introduced the mariachi group to record was the Mariachi Vargas from Jalisco, Mexico. They played as instrumental back-up for such Mexican musical stars as Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran and Javier Solis.
The original mariachis played seated. Not until the first trumpet joined the group in the 1940s did they start standing. "El Trompetas,"a musician simply known as "The Trumpeter," was a master of the instrument and changed the mariachi sound forever.
The 40s also saw the evolution of what we think of as the traditional mariachi uniform. It is the flamboyant charro outfit consisting of close-fitting pants with rows of engraved silver or gold buttons or an embroidered leather designs on the outside seams, a matching short jacket, snowy white shirt with ruffled tie, all topped off with a wide sombrero and short boots with a mirror shine.
The modern mariachi group consist of twelve members: guitarra de golpe, a five-stringed instrument tuned differently than a western guitar; vihuela also five strings; guitarrón, six strings at the time; five or six violins; two trumpets and sometimes even a harp.
Over the centuries as more musicians and different instruments joined the group, the mariachi sound changed, and the music has become more complicated.
The mariachis play for wedding receptions, birthdays, conventions, political functions, funerals and traditionally serenade mothers on Mother's Day, a custom known as gallo. Their musical style has moved beyond national boundaries to many parts of the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, France and even Japan.
Thanks to modern music stars such as Linda Ronstadt and others, the popularity of this folk music is increasing throughout the United States. Local high schools continue this musical tradition for a few generation of mariachis. Area musicians have chosen the vitality of the Mexican musical tradition to express their culture and heritage. They have chosen the "right one" for them. !Como no! (Uh huh!)