Friday, May 3, 2013

First steps towards understanding mariachi music

Despite being exposed to mariachi music for all my life, I would say I have a very limited understanding of the subject. Since Cinco De Mayo and Mother's Day are coming up, I figured it would be a good time to get a brief understanding of this often misunderstood genre. 

I contacted my friend Corine Garcia to ask her about the subject. She's been playing with professional mariachi groups since she was a junior in high school. Along with being a singer/songwriter in a three-piece band, she is the mariachi director at Roma Middle School. 

This was my first time asking her about her passion for mariachi music. 

"My earliest memories of mariachi are watching Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de Mi Padre," remembers Corine Garcia. "When the high school mariachi came to visit our elementary school and play a recruiting concert, I was hooked. I knew that's what I wanted to do."

I asked Corine, "How would you describe mariachi music to someone who has never really explored it or isn't familiar with (the genre)?"

"When asked to describe mariachi to someone unfamiliar with the term, the easiest way is to say, 'those musicians with the guitars and the big hats'," Garcia said. "A more technical definition would be the traditional Mexican folk ensemble made up of violins, trumpets, and several variations on the guitar."

"But mariachi is much more than that. The first mariachis included any number of instruments and were the ensembles that led community celebrations in rural Mexico. The ensembles from the states of Jalisco and Michoacán most resembled the mariachi we know today and included a harp, a small guitar, and one or two violins." 

Through the decades, mariachi music drew from a variety of influences. 

"Gradually, as radio and movies came on the scene and people started moving to the cities for work, the ensemble absorbed many influences and became the standard group we are used to seeing today: four to six violins, one or two trumpets, the large guitarrón as a bass instrument, guitar, and a smaller guitar called a vihuela, and sometimes a harp." 

So what songs are you going to be exposed to while you're out celebrating Cinco De Mayo and Mother's Day in the Rio Grande Valley?

"Often any of the traditional mariachi repertoire is welcomed and appropriate, especially patriotic songs like 'Viva Mexico' or 'México Lindo y Querido'," Garcia said. "A typical Mother's Day serenata would include 'Las Mañanitas', 'O Madre Querida' and often a romantic trio like 'Gema'. Or any other favorite song of the mother being honored."

I decided to contact Jonathan Clark — a noted mariachi historian and professional guitarrón player of 38 years — about the differences on how the upcoming holidays are celebrated on both sides of the border. While he confirms that Mother's Day is equally big in Mexico, the same is not true of Cinco De Mayo. 

"Cinco De Mayo is basically a Chicano holiday," said Jonathan Clark. "Basically a meaningless date for Mexican mariachis, they don't normally get any extra work on this day. Whereas virtually every U.S. mariachi is booked up months in advance for this date."

Clark also points out to me one of the most common misconceptions about mariachi music.   

"(Some people say) that some connection exists between the French culture or language and mariachi music," Clark said. "This is an old myth that has been debunked many times, but which dies hard." 

Curious about listening to early mariachi recordings, I turned to where I often go to for regional and roots music — Arhoolie Records. Thanks to the easy access of Spotify, I was able to quickly listen to Mariachi Coculense de Cirilo Marmolejo - Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis - Vol. 1 (1926 - 1936) and Mariachi Tapatio de Jose Marmolejo - Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis - Vol. 2. 

I was really quite surprised at how raw the mariachi sound was in those early days. It was powerful yet very different from the polished and smooth sound that you hear from contemporary musicians. I still have a long road ahead of me when it comes to exploring mariachi music.   

Thinking about how these records made me feel, I went back to ask Corine something that had slipped my mind. My first set of questions for her were for information, background and facts. I had forgotten to ask her what she feels — que siente — when experiencing mariachi music.  

"Excitement. Passion. Pride. And the feeling of connecting with your audience (in a way) that I have never experienced in any other genre of music."

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