Mariachi: the country music made in Mexico

Gail Collins 6 August 2021

Delve into the history of the Mexican country music that is Mariarchi

The lights are lowering, the DJ’s music is fading, the whisper of waves lapping the shoreline can just about be heard over animated voices and I am almost as happy as the bride. We are guests at a Mexican wedding, our very first and I hope not our last!

It is taking place on Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island, off the Eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, more well-known for outstanding diving and Jacque Cousteau’s discovery of black coral on its Palancar Reef than nuptials, but this is Tatiana’s family home and a perfect setting for the big celebration. Having spent the last hour boogeying energetically to pop songs you might hear at a wedding reception in England, now it is time to go back to the traditions of this beautiful, crazy, vibrant country.

Mariarchi

Gleaming buttons of silver reflect off the showy charro suits, shiny boots with decorative spurs stroll onto centre stage, conversations adjourn, an elated whoop echoes, then a joyful sound erupts that not only twangs the strings of instruments but of your heart too. It is so hard to explain music that contains the soul of an entire country—but that is the power of mariachi—you cannot explain it—you feel it. 

"It is so hard to explain music that contains the soul of an entire country—but that is the power of mariachi—you cannot explain it—you feel it"

The song is “Cielito Lindo”, literally meaning “Beautiful Heaven” but in this instance “Beautiful Sweetie” and over the last century, it has become the unofficial anthem of Mexico, going global when Mexican fans began singing it to their national team during the 1998 World Cup in France.

From a fusion of influences by Indigenous, African and European people—mariachi music evolved from the rural regions of West-Central Mexico in the early 1800s, with several regions laying claim to its origins. By the late 1900s, the state of Jalisco, which borders the Pacific Ocean, declared itself as La Cuna del Mariachi”, ultimately taking credit as the birthplace of mariachi. This self-anointed title may well have been instigated by the fact that prior to the 1930s, mariachis were unknown outside their own regions but when the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan from Jalisco were invited to Mexico City to play at the 1934 inauguration of president, Lazaro Cardenas—mariachis began to travel.

Mariarchi

The Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan are undoubtedly one of the kingpins in the mariachi world and a household word throughout Mexico. Founded in 1898 by Don Gaspar Vargas, his son Don Silvestre Vargas took over in the 1930s and played with the group until he was in his mid-seventies. Silvestre died at the age of 85 on 7 October, 1985 and to this day people still make a pilgrimage to his gravesite often followed by a visit to the museum in his name that was established in 1999.

Now on their fifth generation of musicians, they have travelled the world including the US, Europe, China and Japan and command upwards of around £8000 for a two-hour performance. Their professionalism has set a new bar—they do not saunter in late, and they never drink too much cerveza!

"Their professionalism has set a new bar—they do not saunter in late, and they never drink too much cerveza!"

The mariachi’s appearance at weddings, birthdays, baptisms and even funerals is commonplace. Usually with the violin, guitar, trumpet, a six-string acoustic base to hit the low notes and the ukulele-like vihuela left over from the Spanish colonial days, they are a brutally dashing addition to an already colourful Mexican culture.

Although traditionally it’s a bit of a machismo world, the first historically documented female mariachi was Rosa Quirino, who began playing at the age of 13 in 1903. In 1948, the first all-female mariachi band was formed—Las Adelitas, who took their name from the brave women (soldaderas), who took to arms during the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910. In 2018, the all-female Mariachi Femenil Innovacion became an internet sensation with their rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

Mariarchi

Even when they are singing the saddest of songs, mariachis bring happiness although one dark night in November 2018, it was a slightly different story.

During the US trial of the infamous drug lord, Joaquin Guzman (El Chapo), a former lieutenant in his cartel was subpoenaed, against his wishes, to give evidence. His name was Miguel Angel Martinez, known as El Gordo (The Fat One). He was already in jail and became perturbed to hear mariachi music outside the prison walls, playing the same song, repeatedly throughout the night. That song was “Un Puno de Terra”, a firm favourite of El Chapo’s.

The following morning, a man armed with a pistol and grenade tried to break through the prison guards to his cell. He survived to tell his tale!

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