The Cultural Significance of Mariachi

    Before we can understand why Mariachi came to be so popular in Mexico we must look at the basics of the music and its features. As previously stated, a Mariachi band consists of guitars, trumpets, violins, and sometimes a harp. However, this combination of instruments has fluctuated over time (Harpole et al 1989). A traditional Mariachi band would consist of all string instruments, the biggest difference from the modern band being the absence of the trumpet (Sheehy 1998). The trumpet is favored by most and has continued to remain a stronghold of a Mariachi band because it adds strength to the melody (Harpole et al 1989). Traditionally, a Mariachi band has an average of seven or eight musicians, recently, however, bands have been known to include up to as many as thirteen or fourteen players (Harpole et al 1989). As Mariachi music's popularity grew, musicians began to think of new venues where they could play their music. Strolling Mariachi bands soon evolved, the band would stroll through town parks and serenade shoppers with Mariachi. The harp however was too bulky to be carried down the street and still be played at the same time. Therefore, the guitarron was introduced in place of the harp (Harpole et al 1989). The guitarron is a four to six string guitar that is much bigger and has a shorter neck than conventional guitars (Benavidez 1996). The guitarron's sound was widely popular with crowds, and the harp was soon forgotten (Harpole et al 1989). Another unique type of guitar used by Mariachi is the vihuela, which is a five stringed instrument with a deep belly for resonance (Benavidez 1996). The guitarron, along with the vihuela, are two very distinct instruments unique to Mariachi bands (Nevin 2002). Strolling Mariachi bands soon became a major cultural attribute for many Mexican cities.

   Mariachi music has had its biggest impact on Mexico socially. The music is almost always played to accompany dancing, such as the waltz, polka, or folkloric Mexican dances (Harpole et al 1989). Many song lyrics consist of tongue-in-cheek jokes, and are humorous in nature (Harpole et al 1989). Well-defined yells and cries, called gritos , are usually shouted during Mariachi songs to emphasize certain meanings (Harpole et al 1989). Another social impact Mariachi has had on Mexican life is the dress that the musicians wear. The Mariachi band members wear charro suits, which are considered very professional and fit for the upper class (Nevin 202). These suits are adorned with silver or gold buttons, called botanaduras , which line the arms of the jacket and legs of the pants (Nevin 2002). The waistcoat is usually cut a little short and the pants usually very tight fighting (Nevin 2002).

   Today Mariachi is considered the music of Mexico, but has only enjoyed that distinction for about 75 years. As discussed above, Mariachi had been around since the late 1700s, but it never extended far beyond the state of Jalisco. However, around 1930, Mariachi began to be performed for the entire country of Mexico. The development of radio and television is the main reason (Chamorro 2001). Once mass media began to become widely accessible to the entire country, the entire nation fell in love with Mariachi. One Mariachi star band emerged in the 1930s that would even further help propel this beloved music. This band was Mariachi Vargas de Teclitlan, who set the pattern for Mariachi success with reoccurring radio recordings (Sheehy 1998). Mariachi Vargas gained their credibility by winning two consecutive Mariachi competitions in Mexico City and Guadalajara (Nevin 2002). Vargas rose to popularity by singing at the inauguration of the newly elected Mexican president in 1934 (Nevin 2002). After this national publicity success, Mariachi Vargas was then hired to be the official musician of the Mexico City Police Department (Nevin 2002). They were a strong factor as to why Mariachi's popularity took off so well. Another reason why Mariachi became so popular is that it portrayed the spirit of Mexicans. Mexican can rely on Mariachi music to express feelings, depict everyday life, or honor Mexican history (Collins 2004). It never took over as the most distinctive music, it absorbed all different types of music and continually changes to fit a musicians or listeners tastes (Nevin 2002). Mariachi is so distinctive to Mexico, yet varies by region and band (Nevin 2002). For all these reasons, Mariachi can be considered one of Mexico's most complex cultural activities.

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