The traditional mariachi vs the modern mariachi - both increasingly vivid

Jalisco is the cradle of a considerable amount of cultural elements that are fundamental to Mexican identity, among them, without a doubt, the mariachi. Despite its importance and prominence, many of us may not be aware that there are two types of mariachis: the traditional and the modern.

Mariachi Guadalajara. Photo: Wikipedia
Mariachi Guadalajara. Photo: Wikipedia

The traditional mariachi, overshadowed by the popularization of the modern mariachi in the first half of the 20th century, is now and has been for a few years experiencing a moment of revaluation.

In due course the differences between the two and the reason why there is more than one will be explained. For the time being it is only intended to make it clear that both exist and have developed in parallel. In other words, the modern one did not replace the traditional one, both are living cultural expressions. Today and for some years now, the traditional mariachi is even being revalued thanks to the efforts of many actors (government, business, civil society). 

How to distinguish traditional and modern mariachi

The basic difference between traditional and modern mariachi is in the instrumentation: the former does not use trumpets, only string instruments (although some groups incorporate the Tambora). The clothing is also different: instead of the charro costume, the traditional mariachi dresses up as a country-folk with a cotton blanket suit, a hat made of wheat or palm straw, and huaraches.

The genres they play also vary: the traditional mariachis play sones and jarabes, while the modern ones, besides those two genres, also play corridos, rancheras, boleros, ballads, and cumbias, among others.

The modern mariachi is also often associated with commercial purposes and urban environments, while the traditional mariachi is coupled with the preservation of folklore and rural environments. The historical and social circumstances that gave rise to them are also different.

The term and origin of mariachi

Today we use the word mariachi to designate the musical genre born in Western Mexico (by extension, we call both the musicians and the groups that perform it). The term was originally used to designate the public dances or fandangos where sones were played. The origin of the word is to some extent uncertain, the most widespread version is that it comes from the coca language. There is a curious myth (although little accepted nowadays) about the origin of the word which says that it comes from the French word marriage, by a group of French people who came across a fandango and confused it with a wedding.

The traditional mariachi has at least three centuries of development, although there are those who claim that it has existed since the 16th century.

There are those who locate the origin of mariachi in the region of Los Altos, even pointing to Teocaltiche as its cradle. It is safer to say that it originated in the West of the country, particularly in the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Colima, but also Guerrero, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, and even the State of Mexico and Sinaloa. Learning by ear was the main means of transmission. Technical skills were transmitted from parents to children or through performances organized on the occasion of religious or civil festivities. The case is not entirely different today.

The traditional mariachi has at least three centuries of development, although some say it has existed since the 16th century. The only thing that can be said for sure is that sones originated during the Colony, by the appropriation of the European instruments and musical paradigm. The process of secularization that Mexico underwent during the 19th century helped the diversification and expansion of the mariachi, because from then on it could freely develop outside the religious sphere.

By the beginning of the 20th century, mariachi had already acquired certain national fame, although it was a preferred genre among the popular classes, while the upper class preferred musical genres imported from Europe. With Porfirio Díaz, the use of mariachis for diplomatic and governmental acts began. As the country became more urbanized, there were also more and more mariachis in the cities.

The origin of modern mariachi

The popularization outside the West and the migration from the countryside to the city marks the origin of modern mariachi. On the one hand, the peasant attire was replaced by another of more sophisticated appearance until it culminated in the charro suit full of metallic applications and leather saddlery called piteada. On the other hand, the demands of the urban public and of different regions of the country caused the change in the instrumentation and the diversification of the genres interpreted.

The attraction of the mariachi perhaps lay in its representation of rural life, which was now evoked with nostalgia by the migrants who populated the cities. Over time, this translated into the creation of an idealized past that populated the Mexican imagination, visible also in other cultural expressions, such as the films produced in the first half of the 20th century. Today a similar situation exists with the communities of Mexicans in foreign countries: the mariachi evokes the mother country.

The Temptation of the Trumpets

Modern mariachis dress in the charra style, usually in black, which in the charrería is only worn for ceremonies and weddings. They also wear other colors that charros would not wear, such as white. Buttons and other metallic applications are very important, and they make the suits look spectacular.

The modern mariachi is based mainly on the regional variant of Cocula, but it was considerably modified from the 1930s onwards. By the middle of the 20th century, it was common in radio, television, cinema, and the recording industry, reaching unprecedented levels of popularity and beginning to be known in other countries.

As costumes became more elaborate and the genres played diversified, groups grew in numbers and in the variety of instruments they played. Today we can find mariachis as big as orchestras, as well as performances of practically any genre in mariachi.

Sones and emblematic figures

The traditional mariachi repertoire includes jarabes, the different types of sones, minuetes, valonas, serenades, praises to the virgins of Catholicism, and traditional songs of rural life. The lyrics of the songs speak of the love of the land, the village where one lives, Mexico, religion, nature, rural life (agriculture and cattle raising), and women, both in Spanish and in various indigenous languages. They transmit values that encourage respect for natural heritage and local history.

Typical instruments are the vihuela (a stringed instrument sharper than the guitar), the guitar, the guitarrón or double bass, the violin, the arpa, and the drum. As for representative authors, it is necessary to mention that the songs performed by traditional mariachis are usually of the popular domain. Due to their historical importance, we can highlight Daniel Calderón Silva, Jerónimo Méndez, and Manuel Esperón.

The repertoire of songs from the traditional mariachi is not completely alien to the modern mariachi, what changes is the instrumentation. Some of the most representative songs are El Jalisciense, El Son de la Benavita, El Jarabe Tapatío, and El Son de la Negra.

The Mariachi, Intangible Heritage of Humanity

In November 2011, UNESCO inscribed the mariachi on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is the seventh Mexican element on the list, along with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the Papantla Flyers, Mexican cuisine, and others.

As a result, the Center for Mariachi Documentation and Research was established in Guadalajara, the National Commission for the Safeguarding of the Mariachi was created, the National Meeting of Traditional Mariachi was strengthened, the National Plan for the Safeguarding of the Mariachi was elaborated and performing arts shows were produced.

In recent years, the focus has been on disseminating mariachi culture as a fundamental element in the formation of Mexican identity. The aim is to encourage the creation of traditional music and to disseminate the work of contemporary composers, especially among young people.

Panorama and horizon

The traditional mariachi lives a moment of revaluation. It is also beginning to be given the place it deserves in music schools, after having been neglected for some time. This is of great importance, since it opens the possibility for the students of these schools to form their own groups, a situation that is already happening.

Inter-institutional efforts to preserve and disseminate traditional mariachi, in general, give special importance to young people, for example in Nayarit there is a school of traditional mariachi exclusively for children. This is intended to make the next generation of traditional mariachis much more robust than the current one. The years will tell if these efforts paid off, for now the best thing we can do is to get closer to the genre, explore it, and enjoy it.

By Saúl Zuno Source Cultura Jalisco