The History and Culture of Mariachi Music in Guadalajara

XX International Mariachi and Charreria
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Mariachi music celebrates the struggles, sadness, joys, and love of the Mexican people. Generally considered to have originated in the state of Jalisco around Guadalajara, this music has become the soundtrack of important events and celebrations for Mexicans everywhere. The UNESCO recognized this traditional musical form as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2011, but it dates back several centuries. Mariachi is the sound of the fiesta, and listening to it evokes the joy of spending time with friends, eating, drinking, and celebrating. 

History

Mariachi music is a result of a fusion of musical styles that evolved over a few hundred years in the highlands of western central Mexico, a region which includes the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, and Michoacan. Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s, the indigenous people of Mexico had highly developed musical traditions that incorporated wind and percussion instruments such as conch shells, reed flutes, and drums. In the 16th century, string instruments (guitars, violins, and others) brought by Europeans were incorporated into the local music. The arrival of people from Africa also added their musical traditions to the mix and contributed to the style of folk music of the region.

Mariachi music was initially associated with the celebrations of rural lower classes. With the advent of radio, cinema, and the phonograph, the masses were exposed to mariachi music and it gained wider acceptance. The golden age of Mexican cinema (from the 1930s to 50s) cemented the importance of mariachi music to Mexican culture. What had previously been a rural, regional style of music became Mexico's most iconic musical form.

The Charro Suit

The suit worn by mariachis is made up of a waist-length jacket, fitted pants (or skirt for women) trimmed with silver buttons, or a geometric design embroidered or appliquéd down each side. Accessories include a wide-embroidered belt, a large floppy bow tie, and ankle-high boots. An ornately decorated broad-brimmed sombrero tops off the look.

Early mariachi musicians wore the same type of outfits as ranch workers: white cotton shirts and breeches, with huaraches (leather sandals) and straw hats. In the early 20th Century, mariachi musicians began to wear charro suits - the outfits worn by Mexican cowboys who perform charrería - a sport that developed on the ranches and haciendas of Mexico, similar to rodeo but which involves highly stylized and artistic forms of roping, horsemanship, and working with cattle. By the 1930s, musical groups from Jalisco were routinely donning the charro suit, and from that time it became the official uniform of mariachis.

Where Mariachis Perform in Guadalajara

If you want to experience an authentic fiesta with a performance by mariachis, here are the best spots in and around Guadalajara: 

  • Casa Bariachi: A restaurant in Guadalajara’s Arcos Vallarta neighborhood that serves traditional Mexican food along with performances of mariachi music and regional dancing in an authentic Mexican atmosphere.
  • Plaza de Los Mariachis: This plaza near the San Juan de Dios church traditionally functioned as a center for mariachi bands to congregate. Since the 1960s, the importance of this plaza has been in decline. There are a few restaurants and bars, and you may find some mariachis here, but at night this area may not feel safe.
  • El Parian, Tlaquepaque: About a 20-minute drive from the Guadalajara city center, the small town of San Pedro Tlaquepaque (now part of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Zone) has a large square with a bandstand in the center which is surrounded by restaurants and bars. This is one of the Tlaquepaque's main attractions, and if there isn’t a mariachi band playing on stage, musicians may approach your table to ask if you would like a song. 
  • El Patio, Tlaquepaque: This traditional Mexican restaurant in Tlaquepaque has live performances by an all-women mariachi band daily at 3 p.m. and other musical performances throughout the day.
  • The International Mariachi Festival: If you love mariachi music, this festival held yearly in Guadalajara during the month of September, is the largest celebration of mariachi music in the world with an estimated 500 mariachis converging on the city to participate in concerts, parades, and contests. During this festival, the whole city becomes a stage for mariachi performances.

Hiring Mariachis

You can expect to pay between 100 and 150 Mexican pesos (around $5 to $7) per song; depending on the location, the size of the troupe, and their proficiency. Keep in mind that this is for a sizable group of musicians. You may also be able to agree on a price for an hour’s worth of music.

Mariachi Songs to Request

If you hire a mariachi group to perform a song, you may make a request for what you would like them to sing. Here are some options:

  • "Las Mañanitas": Choose this if someone in your group is celebrating a birthday or anniversary.
  • "Guadalajara": Written by Pepe Guízar in 1937. if you’re in Guadalajara, sing it loud!
  • "El Mariachi Loco": A festive, upbeat song about a mariachi who wants to dance.
  • "El Jarabe Tapatio": You may know it as the Mexican Hat Dance. This instrumental song originated as a courtship dance in Guadalajara in the 19th century.
  • "A Mi Manera": The Spanish language version of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
  • "Cielito Lindo": Roughly translated as Lovely, Sweet One. You’ll likely recognize the refrain: “Ay, ay ay ay, canta y no llores…”
  • "Canción Mixteca": Written in 1912 by Oaxacan composer José López Alavez, expressing his homesickness after moving to Mexico City. Now it’s considered an anthem for the region of Oaxaca as well as for Mexicans who live abroad and miss their country. 
  • "Mexico Lindo y Querido": Although the lyrics may sound a bit morbid: “Mexico, if I die far from you, let them pretend that I’m sleeping and bring me back,” Mexicans consider it a beautiful tribute to their homeland.
  • "México en la Piel": Written by José Manuel Fernández Espinosa and popularized by Luis Miguel and at the nightly show at Xcaret Park. “This is how Mexico feels.”
  • "El Rey": A 1971 song by José Alfredo Jiménez, generally considered a drinking song. “I may not have a throne or a queen, or anyone who understands me, but I’m still the king.”
  • "Amor Eterno": A song about eternal love written by Juan Gabriel that can be interpreted as being about lost romantic love, but he maintained that he wrote it in honor of his deceased mother.
  • "Si Nos Dejan": A romantic song by José Alfredo Jimenez. “If they let us, we’ll love each other for our whole lives.”
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