Mariachi is a musical form whose popularity has endured for well over 100 years, crossing all cultural barriers. Indeed, these distinctive sounds of Mexico are even embraced by American schoolchildren with mariachi clubs springing up in middle and high schools, particularly in the southwest United States. "The first notes—the trumpets, the violins all playing together—it just gives you such a feeling of excitement," Roberto Alvarez, a student at Chula Vista High school and guitarist in his school's mariachi band said in an NPR interview. "It's such a rush."
Now, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways, you can get in on the fun with The Sounds of Mariachi: Lessons in Mariachi Performance, a nearly 2-hour instructional DVD that will take you through the ins and outs of mariachi performance so you and your buds can pull together your own high energy ensemble. But what exactly makes mariachi music? Before you dive in, here are five things you should know about this musical art form:
Origins: Mariachi is born of Mexico's ranches and provincial villages. This blend of European and African music traditions spread to Mexico's more metropolitan areas in the early 1900s and became a sensation. With the advent of radio and motion pictures, mariachi bands found new outlets for their music and bolstered their popularity.
Instruments: In a rock band you expect a guitarist, bassist, drummer and maybe a tambourine player if the significant other of one of your band mates proves to be especially intrusive. But what makes up a mariachi band? Traditionally, you'll find the following cocktail of instruments: two trumpets, three or more violins, a vihuela (small guitar) and a guitarrón (big bass guitar). Mix well, serve on a stage and enjoy!
Style: You won't find these duds in a Sears catalog. Aside from the distinctive music, mariachi are almost immediately identifiable by their couture. But where did such strong fashion statements come from? According to Patricia Greathouse in her 2009 book Mariachi, the costumes have their roots in the traditions of the Mexican rodeo where gentleman cowboys, called charros, would competitively show off their beautiful, well-trained horses—so donning fancy dress for the occasion was a matter of course. This same sense of style was adopted by the mariachi who adapted it to exemplify stylishness and flash. Traditionally, the standard mariachi outfit consists of a three-piece suit, a soft necktie, a good belt and a terrific hat to top it all off. So mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys—but musicians sporting sequins and lamé are A-OK.
Substance: So you got the instruments and the look down pat, what do you play at your next gig? Luckily, there's a lot of material to pull from since mariachi encompasses a host of folk music forms. Greathouse lists a much more than we can detail here, but a few examples include: the jarabe, which you may know as the "Mexican Hat Dance"; harmony-rich boleros; pasodoble, which some of you may know from Dancing with the Stars showdowns and evokes the drama of bullfighting; waltzes and polkas.
Women Play Too: The stereotypical image of mariachi bands is that they're an all guy thing. Over the past 50 years, this image has been changing. While women performing with mariachi bands were once relegated to dancing or playing certain instruments, more integrated and even all female groups are springing up. And some of you may remember when Linda Rondstadt tapped into her Latin American roots and caught the mariachi bug, releasing an album of songs. It scored her a Grammy.
If you'd like to learn more about mariachi, check out the Smithsonian Folkways' Web site where you can listen to songs and even play with a digital mariachi ensemble.