What’s The Deal With Those Mariachis?

They’re just trying to make a living

Mariachi is a form of Mexican folk music that began as a regional folk style called “son jaliscience.” It originated in the center-west part of Mexico, and at that time was played only with string instruments by musicians dressed in the white pants and shirts of the peasant farmers.

From the 19th century to the 20th century, migrations from rural areas into cities caused mariachi to be gradually re-labeled as “Son style,” with its alternate name of mariachi being used to describe the urban form of the music. Along the way, influences from other song styles, such as polka and waltz, were added. The addition of trumpets and the use of charro outfits by mariachi musicians also became common. The musical style began to get national recognition in the first half of the 20th century, with its promotion at presidential inaugurations and on the radio in the 1920s.

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As mariachi bands are expected to play requests, they may need to know hundreds of different songs. Most traditional songs are about machismo, love, betrayal, death, politics, revolutionary heroes and even animals and country life. Of course, the mariachis who play here in Cabo have also learned many American favorites. They play for the crowd.

For generations, Mexico’s mariachis have passed their passion down to their children, teaching them how to play classics like “El Rey” or “Cielito Lindo,” which they had learned by ear from their fathers and mothers before them. Around here, though, it often seems as if the mariachis who gor from restaurant to restaurant have just picked up their instruments that morning. They shout every word, and seem to not pay attention to any of the nuances of the music. If you’re not in the mood for it, it can maddening to be locked inside a restaurant with their horns, their shouting, and their hands strumming the same three chords on the guitars. Inevitably, the drunken tourists at the next table are feeding this display of amateurism like the men are a nickel juke box.

While mariachi music dates back to the 19th century, Mexico counts few schools solely dedicated to the genre. The educational movement is controversial, with some trained mariachis trained in the traditional manner (or not trained at all) looking down on these programs and their potential to change the tradition.

The changes, especially standardization of publishing their songs, are slowly impacting mariachi in Mexico. One difficulty in arranging mariachi pieces is that they alternate between 3/4 and 6/8 time. Much of the published mariachi music is meant for people already familiar with the music, not novices. On the other hand, many schools have problems recruiting mariachi instructors, as many of these do not have required teaching credentials. For this reason, schools often hire trained musicians from outside the mariachi tradition. Of course, many traditional mariachis don’t like that and are concerned that standardization will lead to fossilization and restrict improvisation.

Whether they’ve been traditionally trained or trained at school, there are lots of musicians who are struggling to find work in an overcrowded business. A mariachi ensemble can have as many as a dozen musicians and may charge around $310 USD an hour for a full band, or less when fewer musicians are involved. Many young people who can’t go to school want to become mariachis because they can make more money than in a factory.

Here in Cabo the men, (always men here, rarely women in some other cities), play for whatever they may be given, so think about their families, and give accordingly. And if you simply can’t stand all that close up noise, you can also say, “Puedes cantar muy lejos?” That means “Can you play far away?” If you say it with a smile, they invariably take it in good spirits as a joke. Once in a while, a band will strike up a generic tune and try to play a song with those words. That deserves some pesos, don’t you think?