Mariachi developed as a regional ensemble. The origin of Mariachi is believed to be Cocula, a town in the state of Jalisco. The emergence of Mariachi in Jalisco was shaped by political, economic and cultural factors. Regional variations existed in the form of Mariachi across regions. However, the music played by the mariachi as it emerged was the son. Son was the term used to describe a complex of Mexican folk music and dance styles that had a characteristic style and performance. It incorporated folk traditions from Spain, Africa, and Mexico. Consequently, there were variations across regions. Names were accorded to the music depending on the region. For instance, the son played in Jalisco was the son Jalisciense. Others include the son jarocho and son huesteco. Music and dance go hand in hand in mariachi. Each variation of the son has a specific traditional dance to go with it. The lyrics in the music typically describe country life, particularly plants animals, and the people. The dances following the music would be a representation of courtship as it happens in the country and described by the lyrics. The incorporation of music and dance within the cultural practice of regions provided meaning to the music and allowed the use of various musical instruments.
Mariachi was becoming highly popular. However, the Mariachis were not full-time artists and they would travel across the region looking for work. They would usually seek jobs at haciendas, where they were given better remuneration than the average worker. However, the revolution forced the haciendas to let go of the mariachis.
Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920
The revolution accelerated migration from rural areas to cities. This movement of people to the city affected the mariachis as they too increasingly moved to Mexico City and other urban areas. The revolution was a precursor of a change in position of Mariachi and other regional mestizo musical traditions in Mexico. The new nationalism appreciated grassroot culture as expressed in the writings of Mexican intellectuals, and in the symbols exploited by leaders to represent nationhood. After the revolution, there was a need to have a symbol that represented national unity, for the politicians, mariachi was a perfect choice. Mariachi thus became the sound symbol for the people and the national music for Mexico.
As urban areas grew, there was demand for music that responded to the tastes of the newly arrived people from rural areas. As previously noted, Mariachis evolution is a cultural revolution. As the society evolved and distinct urban tastes appeared the sound, repertoire, and function of mariachi evolved with it. The urban sound had remnants of the original sound, but meaning had changed to reflect the current practice.
1920s-1940: The Modern Mariachi Takes Shape
In 1920, the group Mariachi Coculence, moved to Mexico City. Before this time, these groups would usually have other jobs to supplement their income. As such, 1920 was historical as it marked the trend of having groups that comprised of full-time professional musicians. Additionally, this date is important as it also marked the beginning of mariachi as an urban sound. One of the most well-recognized traditions regarding mariachi is the daily gatherings of hundreds of groups around Plaza Garibaldi. This tradition began in 1925.
The 1920s also marked the first recording of mariachi music electronically. Mariachi Coculense Rodriguez was the first group to make recordings with this new technology. This group was a trendsetter. The group was also the first to be featured in a sound film in 1931. These achievements by the group established mariachi as a professional form of music in the rapidly growing Mexico City. During this time, the Mexican electronic media was on the brink of a major expansion. These firsts placed Mariachi on a platform that was to explode, something that had a significant effect on the nationalization of mariachi. Over the next thirty years, media, particularly radio, transformed the image and sound of mariachi into something akin to what we recognize today. Radio also augmented the impact of mariachi across Mexico, and even beyond.
The radio gave Mariachi musicians a lot of exposure. For instance, XEW, La Voz de America Latina Desde Mexico radio station was instrumental in this regard. The station emerged in 1930 and prided itself on being the as a representative voice for Latin America to the rest of the world. It played mariachi music and availed it across the nation and beyond. It was used as a tool for the exportation of Mexican music across the world. This spread of mariachi music coupled with the revolution which celebrated grassroot music propelled mariachi into a national symbol of Mexican culture. The affordability of radio increased people access to mariachi, as many people owned radios. Although by this time mariachi was increasingly becoming a staple of Mexican culture and the groups would perform live and even record their music, radio reached a wider audience than any of these avenues.
As mariachi was transformed from its traditional background, so did the types of musical instruments employed. The most common instruments used were the vihuela, a six-stringed Spanish guitar, guitarron, an instrument similar to vihuela but with a large soundbox, and harp, an instrument that is not frequently used during a performance. Mariachi was gradually getting transformed from a symbol of regional culture where multiple instruments were combined and performance varied into a single ensemble form connected with a specific repertory.
Films were also instrumental in propelling mariachi to unimaginable popularity. A genre known as comedia ranchera had become increasingly popular in the late 1930s propelling mariachi with it. The singing cowboy (charro) was a symbol of machismo and virility and was embodied by the sounds and images of Tito Guizar and Jorge Negrete. The film depicted mariachi as a single ensemble form with a specific repertory, a version of the mariachi that was distributed both nationally and internationally, particularly, in the U.S and Spain. Comedia ranchera identified with Alla en el Rancho Grande (Over at the Big Ranch, 1936), which was the most popular and successful film of this genre. Music was central in this genre and was characterized by a singing cowboy with his mariachi in festive scenes that highlighted the cowboys prowess and the title song. The popularity of this genre across Spanish speaking countries led to a shift in mariachi repertory, as the musicians fixed their performance within the voice of the cowboy and the accompaniment of his mariachi.
Radio became the channel used for progress. It was valued as a tool for political, economic and cultural progress. By late 1920s, the government had put in place laws governing radio, leading to the realization the potential for commercial radio. Music played a central role in the auditory experience of radio both...
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