Mariachi music is a symbol of cultural identity for many Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and people of Mexican heritage who reside in other parts of the world. Like many other musical expressions, mariachi music is largely connected to traditional religious gatherings, local festivities that celebrate rites of passage, and a variety of community social events. The mariachi tradition has arguably succeeded in preserving traditional characteristics despite the demanding effects of globalization. In general, traditional groups tend to preserve an informal aural transmission that is far removed from the entertainment stage associated with popular mariachi, which is an evolution of the traditional mariachi expression. This case study seeks to understand the mariachi tradition as a whole. It covers important historiographic documentation, historical and commercial recordings, and interviews with key people who have shared their views of the expanding mariachi tradition. The report contributes to a history of mariachi music as well as unveiling vital issues regarding its rapid institutionalization in formal education.
Musical knowledge in the mariachi tradition had been historically transmitted through the generations in an informal aural context, independent from formal educational activities in schools. These informal educational settings have involved important non-musical motivations for learning, such as the expression of a community’s identity and cultural knowledge. Yet with the recent institutionalization of mariachi music in Mexico and in the United States, along with the powers of globalization, the teaching-learning process has entered new domains of education that include formal and non-formal methods of transmission and teaching, which are best considered as supplements to the vital informal learning processes.
The demand for multi-skilled mariachi musicians in Mexico’s professional ensembles after the mid-20th century fueled the need for non-formal and formal mariachi music education. To compete on a professional level, musicians were encouraged to know music theory, sing a broad repertoire in ways that were vocally strong and musically accurate, and have high quality performance skills on their instrument.
The changing landscape of mariachi music transmission has offered opportunities for new learners. In many cases, one may learn to perform the genre outside the nuclear and extended regions in which it originated.
Mariachi music today is not only that iconic ensemble found in urban centers such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Los Angeles. There are also groups in Mexico that, when compared to the more popularized, standard, and widely identifiable version, share only the name “mariachi” and few other formal features. In general, these traditional groups tend to preserve an informal aural transmission that is far removed from the entertainment stage associated with standard mariachi, and do not embrace the standardized instrumentation. The popular ensemble, on the other hand, is an evolution of the traditional mariachi expression in Mexico, and has adopted standard instrumentation that generally consists of three to five violins, two trumpets, a guitarrón, a vihuela, a guitar, and a harp. These groups generally perform folkloric and popular Mexican musical genres, as well as art music adapted to their instrumentation.
With the effects of globalization, traditional music genres everywhere are tending to undergo patterns of change, and responses of musicians and communities to change are not uniform. There are mariachi musicians who continue to perform traditional versions of the music in their rural communities in Mexico, many of whom are not making a living as musicians, and who have separate means of income. Then there are those urban musicians who have dedicated their entire lives to learning to perform mariachi music, and who earn enough to call this their full-time career. Thus, learning mariachi music is more than gaining the technical skills required to play the instruments, but also knowing something of the sonic and social features that surround the genre.
A musician’s identification with mariachi music begins with the role and significance it plays in their individual lives, and how each individual decides to appropriate and apply their musical knowledge. Most musicians come from musical families who have inherited the genre from previous generations (e.g., fathers, uncles, and grandfathers), while others were drawn to the opportunity to learn mariachi for economic reasons (and because they were attracted to the sound and lifestyle of a mariachi player).
Performance contexts and meanings in mariachi music have transformed significantly throughout its history. Shifts in the genre’s cultural meaning and functions, as well as the new performance spaces that have arisen through its geographical dispersion, have generated strong views among musicians and community concerning tradition and authenticity. This is particularly true of the relationship between popular mariachi known through commercial channels and the revival movement involving more traditional ensembles.
Various public spaces have emerged as locations of mariachi performance. Where the principal performative setting historically had been the fandango gathering, today this space is being recreated outside its original context with the traditional mariachi revival movement, and into various kinds of public spaces.
Throughout its history as a centuries-old aural tradition, mariachi music’s subsistence has not entirely depended on government intervention, public funding or civic valuing. Yet, while mariachi music is widely considered a national symbol, also endorsed by UNESCO’s inscription of the tradition on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it ironically suffers a lack of formal support and regulations that would govern its sustenance and development.
The media and the populous at large have unfairly identified mariachi musicians as overweight, illiterate, undisciplined drunks and womanizers, uninterested in applying themselves with full disciplinary intent to know the music well. Such attitudes towards mariachi musicians have contributed to the denigration and delegitimation of mariachi music as a representative cultural practice in Mexico, which is complicated by the fact that this tradition has been promoted as iconic music of that country. The disdain endured by such stereotypes has impeded opportunities in Mexico for first-rate groups like Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán or Mariachi de América, who are more in demand as performers outside Mexico than in their own country. Musicians and some scholars have responded to this negative reputation by beginning to demand that those at the forefront of policy-making and mariachi education in Mexico take responsibility for changing such attitudes toward this significant musical expression.
Despite the changing needs of modernizing societies and a lack of governmental support, arguably mariachi music has been kept alive because of its exceptional relevance to its community of both performers and listeners, within and beyond the Mexican borders. Performing mariachi music entails a wide variety of social, cultural and musical meanings and interpretations. With given contexts and constructs, the implications for sustainability involves musicians’ decisions, which impact the interpretation of their musical experience and its relationship with their own culture and identity. Mariachi musicians today have the opportunity to perform in a wide variety of contexts, full-time or as a hobby. Furthermore, with emerging educational spaces, women who did not historically have access to the tradition are developing the knowledge and skills to perform the music while necessarily negotiating their gender identity as mariachi musicians as well. Despite the growing diversity in the way mariachi music is performed, which enriches the way in which it is continually revitalized, repertory and musical genres and in endangerment of loss and need intervention.