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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Mexican Sound of Mariachi

The Mexican Sound of Mariachi
by Naomi Black

Strolling mariachis, dressed in their charro-style ornately embroidered jackets, silver-studded pants, sombrero hat, cowboy boots and playing a variety of instruments, evoke the sum essence of Mexico. Their songs of Mexico speak of love and betrayal, death, machismo, politics and the heroes of the revolutions.

Originally, the music of Mexico was the indigenous sounds of rattles, drums, reed or clay flutes and conch-shell horns. Hundreds of years ago, the Spanish changed all of this with imported instruments.

Mariachi is a melding of many sounds. The violins, trumpets and guitars are all standard European instruments. Add three specifically Mexican instruments: the round-backed guitar called a vihuela, the deep-voiced guitarró and the Mexican folk harp. The concertina or accordion was introduced by German immigrants first to Texas and then into northern Mexico as they traveled south in search of work in the fields and railroads of Mexico. Another addition was the trumpet which became an integral part of mariachi music in the 1950s when emerging Jazz and Cuban music further influenced the mariachi. All of these instruments combine in sharply contrasting sounds which are truly the heart and soul of Mexico.

The most common mariachi style is called “son," this rhythmic patterned sound has an African influence although the music clearly originates from Spain. This music was born to be danced to and the distinctive Spanish footwork is intense. One such dance is the zapateado where dancers drive the heels of their boots into the dance floor, pounding out rhythms which complement the instrumentals. It is said that these dancers can literally reduce a wooden dance floor to splinters because of the force of the dance!

In the 1930s the president of Mexico was hoping to unify the vastly different regions of Mexico with a common culture and to this end he promoted the musical tradition of the mariachi. Today the national dance of Mexico is the Mexican Hat Dance with its precise movement and unique costumes. It is a dance of the charro (or horseman) of Jalisco state and his beautiful partner who dresses in a traditionally hand-woven shawl and bright sequined skirt.

The 1950s are often called the Golden Age of the Mexican cinema. Romantic films of this period present Mexico as a rugged land of the true charro whose life revolves around his señorita, his hacienda, his tequila and, of course, the mariachi! Today, traditional songs such as Guadalajara, La Paloma, Volver Volver, Cielito Lindo, Besame Mucho and La Bamba continue to captivate listeners with the romance and nostalgia of Old Mexico as they sit intrigued by the strolling mariachi.

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