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What is a Mariachi?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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A mariachi is a name for a certain type of musical group, popular in Mexico. The average modern mariachi has a minimum of three guitars, one normal, one bass guitaron, and one a higher-tuned vihuela, as well as two trumpets, and three violins. These groups are easily identifiable by their traditional costume, an outfit with silver studs and distinctive wide hats. The name itself is of unknown origins, although some people believe it can be traced to the French word mariage, meaning simply marriage, and likely referencing the fact that these bands were often performers at weddings.

The music of the mariachi band is first and foremost dance music, and a number of specific dances have sprung up to be danced to this music. The most famous of these dances is undoubtedly the Mexican Hat Dance, which is in fact the national dance of Mexico. The broad technique of dance used with mariachi music is the Spanish style of zapateado, a percussive, high-energy dance style.

The mariachi form began sometime in the late-19th century, in the town of Cocula, in the state of Jalisco, in Mexico. Originally the group would have had a harp in place of the deep bass guitarron, but the guitarron was later substituted for its easier portability. The early bands also had no trumpets as part of their ensemble, though they were added by the early-20th century.

In the early days, a mariachi band would have been associated with a number of haciendas, moving among wealthy patrons as temporary live-in performers. After the Mexican Revolution and the breakdown of the hacienda system, however, the bands were forced to become more of roving buskers to make their livings. They would play in public squares or at communal gatherings for free, and hope to make a living off of tips.

Beginning in the 1930s, mariachi music started to migrate out of its native region and into Mexico City and other major city centers. The earliest largely successful band was the Mariachi Vargas, started by Gaspar Vargas at the end of the 19th century, and brought into the public eye by his son, Silvestre Vargas. Mariachi Vargas created many classic arrangements of this style of music, added the trumpets to the ensemble, and influenced future generations of performers.

In the late-1980s, this music made a debut in the mainstream United States, when Linda Ronstadt released her album Canciones de Mi Padre. She drew her inspiration from her family’s Arizona ranch and their history of singing traditional Mexican folk songs.

Mariachi musicians can be found at a wide range of venues throughout Mexico, the United States, and even in parts of Central and South America. The music is often played at weddings or quinceñera, large celebration of a girl’s 15 birthday. A number of restaurants may also keep performers on hand to walk from table to table serenading diners who request a song. The repertoire of a band tends to be rather sentimental, and as such it is ideal for romantic courtship.

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