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Mariachi band, music, song and dance - Mexico's exquisite culture

Green indicates the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

Green indicates the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

Once upon a time, I was an eighteen year old high school graduate and recipient of a scholarship to study Spanish in Guadalajara, Mexico for the summer between high school and college. I had the experience of my dreams living with a Mexican family and learning that I was experiencing the heart of Mexican culture in the state of Jalisco where mariachi bands, music, songs, and dance originated. This style of bands, music and dance are the epitome of Mexican culture and identity.

Here and throughout all of Mexico today, mariachi bands and music are the most famous and popular of a people who embrace their identity and culture with gusto. While we sat in the plazas, cafes and restaurants, the mariachi bands strolled throughout playing their special brand of Mexican music and singing their hearts out.

One evening, under a full moon, my roommates and I were romantically serenaded by a mariachi band from the nephews of the family we were living with and whom we dated. The entire neighborhood came out to witness the 'love' expressed by these boys for us. We had the total Mexican experience that summer and it has remained one of the wonderful memories I retained from that experience.

What is mariachi music? It is a form of folk music from Mexico in the state of Jalisco and can refer to the music, the band, the dance or just one musician. Most of the songs are about machismo, love, betrayal, death, and revolutionary heroes. It tells the story of the Mexican identity and the passion and love of life the Mexicans have and exhibit.

La guitarron - the deep, bass sound comes from this instrument.

La guitarron - the deep, bass sound comes from this instrument.

The guitarron and the vihuela instruments used in mariachi bands.

The guitarron and the vihuela instruments used in mariachi bands.

The footwork of the mariachi dancers.

The footwork of the mariachi dancers.

Mariachi band

The Mexican Hat Dance

The History of mariachi

Before Cortes invaded Mexico in 1517, the music made by the native, indigenous peoples such as the Aztecs was made with rattles, drums, reed and clay flutes and conch shell horns. This music was usually played as part of religious celebrations.

With the arrival of Cortes and the spread of Christianity many of the native instruments gave way to instruments imported from Europe and Spain: violins, guitars, harps, brass horns, and woodwinds. The Indians and mestizo adopted and learned to play these European instruments.

Over the years this refined music became the music of Mexico, but it was not until the 19th century that mariachi music came into being. It began as a regional folk style called son jalisciense, in the center west of Mexico and was played only with string instruments and musicians dressed as peasant farmers. In the late 19th and early 20th century mariachi music, bands and dance migrated from the rural areas into cities such as Guadalajara and Mexico City and the Mexican government began promoting it as Mexico's cultural identity.

The word mariachi, originally was believed to have come from the French word for 'marriage' mariage, when the emperor of Mexico was Maximillian when Mexico was under the domination of France. During this time the bands entertained at marriage receptions.

But, today, linguists dismiss that belief as the word, mariachi, was found to pre-date the time when the French arrived in Mexico. Mariachi has native roots in Mexico and the Spanish language and today the theory is that is comes from the type of wood used to build the platforms on which the performers danced to the music played by the bands.

Today, mariachi means exciting, exquisite, and enchanting musical ensembles found anywhere in Mexico.

Mariachi music and bands originated in the 19th century in the state of Jalisco in Mexico in the town of Cocula. Mariachi was a distinctive version of Spanish theatrical orchestra of violins, harp, and guitars. Here in this specific region the instruments added were the vihuela, two violins, a gitarron (replaced the harp) became the instruments of the mariachi. Then and today the mariachi band has the following instruments:

  • 6-8 violins
  • 2 trumpets
  • a guitar
  • a vihuela - a high-pitched, round back small guitar that adds rhythm
  • a guitarron - a deep-voiced guitar that adds bass to the ensemble
  • Mexican folk harp
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When played together, the sound of all these instruments make a unique contrasting sound. There is the sweet sound of violins contrasted with the brilliance of the trumpets; there is also the deep sound of the guitarron verses the crisp, high voice of the vihuela and there is a frequent shifting between syncopation and on-beat rhythm.

The principal music played by early mariachi bands is called son, and is a mixture of folk tradition from Spain, Mexico and Africa. It is called son jalisciense in Jalisco and a good example of this type of music is the song, La Negra.

Mariachi and son are not just music but also dance. The dance performed with mariachi music is called zapateado and it is a typical style of dance that originated in Spain, similar to the footwork in flamenco dancing. To dance zapateado performers skillfully drive the heels of their boots or shoes into the wooden dance floor, pounding to swift and syncopated rhythms. This dance style complements the rhythm of the musical instruments.

The lyrics of the songs describe country life, the imagery of courtship and love and the relationships between men and women. The Jarabe Tapatio, better known as The Mexican Hat Dance, was created in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and has become the national dance of Mexico. It is highly stylized with prescribed movements and costumes of the region.

The male performers wear the classic outfit of the Jalisco horseman or charro, and the female performers wear a hand-woven shawl and a bright sequined skirt. The bright primary colors are used in the costumes and have become part of the Mexican identity also.

Before the 1930s the mariachi musicians wore calzones de manta and huaraches, homespun white cotton pants and shirts and leather sandals. These were the clothes worn by the peasants in Jalisco.

During the early 20th century the mariachi music was transformed from a regional rural folk music to an urban music when it was first introduced in Mexico City in 1905. With the migration of many from Guadalajara and the surrounding areas to Mexico City, mariachi bands began performing in the plazas and restaurants in the capital city.

Beginning in the 1930s, the mariachi musicians changed their costumes and began wearing the traje de charro, the suit of the horsemen which consisted of a waist-length jacket, tightly fitted wool pants which opened slightly at the ankle to fit over short riding boots. The pants and jacket were often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs or silver buttons. It also included the large Mexico sombrereo or hat. This costume has been retained over the years and this is what they wear today.

Until the 20th century mariachi music was regional and the music of country people. In 1898, one of the greatest mariachi bands of all times was formed. Gaspar Vargas formed his own mariachi band called, Mariachi Vargas deTecalitlan, and took his band from the region of Jalisco to Mexico City and popularized mariachi music in the capital city where it took off from there.

By 1934, they were so famous and popular with the people that they were invited to play at the inauguration of President Lazaro Cardenas. One the goals of his presidency was to promote the native culture of Mexico throughout the nation and the world.

The urban sophisticates in Mexico City took the president's enthusiasm for Mexican folk arts to their hearts and made mariachi music popular and Mariachi Vargas became the toast of the town.

Mariachi band from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

Mariachi band from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

Silvestre Vargas on the right and his Mariachi Vargas band in the 1950s.

Silvestre Vargas on the right and his Mariachi Vargas band in the 1950s.

Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City the center of mariachi music today.

Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City the center of mariachi music today.

Mariachi bands, music and dance today

In 1938, Silvestre Vargas the son of Gaspar, took over for his father as leader of the Mariachi Vargas and hired trained musician Rubin Fuentes, one of the most important and major figures in the development of mariachi. He standardized and stylized the arrangements of many of the traditional sones, and wrote the musical arrangements for many of the legendary song writers and singers of his generation.

By the 1950s, Fuentes and Silvestre Vargas insisted that all their musicians be able to read music and gone were the musicians who played by ear to pick up new songs and techniques. This changed the way mariachi moved from one group to another and Vargas' mariachi band became the the leader of all the mariachi bands.

Fuentes and Vargas also added two trumpets, a classical guitar and more violins to their band and the ensemble became a complete, adaptable orchestra that retained its traditional base but assimilated new musical ideas and styles.

Therefore, Mariachi Vargas' arrangements became the definitive statements of what mariachi music should be and other bands adopted their style and musical arrangements.

As mariachi bands grew in popularity and importance they began celebrating great moments in the lives of Mexican people and continue to do so today. In the serenata or serendade, the mariachi band participates in the rite of courtship and love and was an early means to communication in which the man could send a message of love to the woman of his heart.

Today, the mariachi band serenades a woman on her birthday or saint day with the song, Las Mananitas, The Little Mornings, as well as serenading to profess the suitor's love.

Today, the Plaza de Garibaldi in Mexico City, is the center of mariachi music and this music has become the international symbol of Mexican identity promoted by the government. Mariachi music has continued to evolve with the times and the popularity of jazz and Cuban music introduced the trumpets in the mariachi bands.

The most prized of the mariachi's are those from the state of Jalisco and the towns of Cocula and Techalitlan.

The charro tradition is still quite popular and strong in Jalisco and the charreada (rodeo) has become a national sport in Mexico. The rodeo became the ideal to Mexicans as the haciendas broke up and mariachi remains strongly associated with tequila.

Each year there is an International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara which is a ten day event the attracts approximately five hundred mariachi bands who participate.

Mariachi bands have also crossed the borders into the U.S. as the Mexican culture has and they are very popular in California and Texas and throughout the southwest U.S. today.

El son de la negra - Ballet Folklorico de Mexico

© 2013 Suzette Walker


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on April 24, 2016:

Thanks so much for reading this! Yes Vargas and Ramirez are quite common names in Mexico. But, you bring up a good point.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on March 01, 2016:

Love this music and use to play some of it. Enjoyed the article and was surprised to see the name Vargas maybe that is related to Ramirez the famous singer and actor Sara, her mother was Vargas. My guess would be it would be to hard to find out, there are too many with that name. Thanks

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 26, 2015:

Essie: thanks so much for stopping by read this and I am glad you enjoyed it. I love Mariachi music and have ever since I began to learn the Spanish language.

Essie from Southern California on July 09, 2015:

Nice Hub! I like mariachi .. not the other music with the accordians. I prefer the brass, violins, guitars. Well written, very much enjoyed. Essie.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 07, 2014:

rebecca: Yes, it was a wonderful experience. It taught me a lot about life and especially the Mexican culture. It was my first time abroad and I was smitten with travel from that time on. I lived in the state of Jalisco, in Guadalajara with a Mexican family, and so I experienced the mariachi bands first hand. The music is so happy and fun to dance to. Thanks so much for your visit and for your comments. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 07, 2014:

heidithorne: Thank you! I thought this was a festive hub for Cinco de Mayo. I love mariachi music and it makes me get up and dance. It is such happy music, too. Thanks for your comments and I am pleased you enjoyed reading this.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on May 05, 2014:

Wow, it sounds like you truly had the experience of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing info about Mariachi music and dance. Very enlightening. Thanks!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 05, 2014:

Perfect article for Cinco de Mayo! Voted up, interesting and sharing!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 10, 2014:

VVanNess: I know - I love Mexican food and the music makes me want to jump up and dance. It is such happy music! I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. Thanks so much for your visit.

Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on March 03, 2014:

This article makes me want Mexican food for dinner! :) Great job! I can almost hear the music in the background.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 01, 2014:

Lupita: So glad you enjoyed reading this and thank you for your insightful comments. Coming from a native, that makes me happy. I just want to jump up and dance every time I hear mariachi music - it is such happy music.

LupitaRonquillo from Colorado on January 30, 2014:

Mariachi music is so rich and amazing. It always reminds me of my father and family of whom I don't get to see very often. I love taking the bus there because its also a live concert while you travel across town. Glad you got to experience it for a little while.... and great work covering this "close to my home and heart" beautiful music!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on January 11, 2014:

ologsinquito: thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. I love mariachi music and it makes me jump up and dance. I love Latin music and the Latin beat. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this.

ologsinquito from USA on January 10, 2014:

Mariachi music is so much fun to hear. This is a really nice article that I'm sharing and pinning.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 19, 2013:

Mike: Thank you so much for your visit and comments. Yes, there is a lot of Mexican culture and mariachi music in southern California. I love this type of music and thank you for you kind comments. I appreciate your visit.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on November 19, 2013:

The hispanic traditions are very popular in So. Cal. The culture is rich with romance, tradition and beauty. Too bad the poverty of Mexico is overwhelming its population.

You do a great job in putting together informative, enriching and educational presentations.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 05, 2013:

Kim: Hope you are feeling better today. I am so glad you enjoyed this hub. Mariachi music is so happy it's hard not to love it. So glad you found this informative and I appreciate your lovely comments.

ocfireflies from North Carolina on November 05, 2013:


Sorry to take so long in leaving a comment, but been quite under the weather. Any way, I LOVE THIS HUB! What a great experience you must have had and what great information you provide. Voted up/shared.



Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 04, 2013:

Pamela: So glad toy enjoyed this hub. I love the mariachi music also and I'm glad to hear you are familiar with it. Thank you so much for visiting and for your comments - most appreciated.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on November 04, 2013:

Amazing -- such history you have given us here. I love the music of Mexico and the people and the culture. I have not been there myself but I know many Spanish-speaking people. (And I'm learning Spanish on, a wonderful free site.)

I learned a new English word from your hub: syncopated.

I enjoyed your videos very much. Great hub! Voting way up and sharing.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2013:

kikalina: Thank you so much for your visit and your comments. I do hope that you go to Mexico some day - it is a wonderful culture to experience and the Mexicans are friendly people once you are away from the border towns that is. LOL

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2013:

Jackie: Thanks so much for your visit and your comments and I'm glad you enjoyed this. I was lucky and worked hard in my Spanish classes to earn that experience. It was a great time and one I will never forget.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2013:

Martie: Exactly! When I hear mariachi music I just want to get up and dance. I played it all the time in my classroom and it made a difference in my student's moods. LOL Thanks for your insightful comments and I'm glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2013:

Thank you Eddy. So glad you enjoyed this. Mariachi music is such happy music. You have a wonderful weekend too.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 03, 2013:

prasetio: Thank you so much and I'm glad you found this interesting and informative. I love mariachi music - it is so happy! Thanks for your visit and your kind comments. Most appreciated.

kikalina from Europe on November 03, 2013:

Would love to go to Mexico. great hub. voted up.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 02, 2013:

Wonderful hub and you were indeed so lucky to have that experience! ^

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 02, 2013:

How can one not enjoy Mariachi music and dance - it changes one's mood promptly from negative to positive, lethargic to energetic...

Excellent article, suzettenaples :)

Eiddwen from Wales on November 02, 2013:

What a wonderful hub Suzette .Voted up and saved for sure. Here's wishing you a wonderful weekend.


prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on November 01, 2013:

Nice review and I just looking at the Mexico's exquisite culture, like Mariachi.. from my television. I learn much more from this hub. Thanks for sharing with us. VOTED UP :-)


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 01, 2013:

Midget: So glad you enjoyed this and enjoyed the music. I love it and it is such happy dancing music! LOL

Michelle Liew from Singapore on November 01, 2013:

I have always loved the music of Mexico and listening to Mariachi bands. A pleasure for the sense! Thanks for sharing, Suzette. Shared!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 01, 2013:

IslandBites: Thanks so much! Yes I do mean son jalisciense. I realized too late I made a spelling error which I am changing now. Thanks for the heads up! Glad you enjoyed this and I appreciate your comments.

IslandBites from Puerto Rico on October 31, 2013:

Great hub! Btw, I think you mean son jalisciense.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 31, 2013:

Thanks Nell: I am so glad you enjoyed this and the music. It definitely happy music. Thanks so much for the visit and your comments!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 31, 2013:

Oh my gosh how cool is that? Mariachi in Viet Nam - what a cultural experience. Glad you enjoyed this and your Aspanish is fine. Babka espanol muy suave! LOL

Nell Rose from England on October 31, 2013:

Hi suzette, I was listening to the music as I was reading, and its lovely isn't it? This was fascinating, and I would love to hear it live, wonderful! voted up and shared! nell

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 31, 2013:

Lonely Bull says it all. For my birthday 2010 my nephew found a mariachi band for me. They were fantastic, considering we were dining in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

From Jalisco to Nayarite to Puebla to the Yucatan to Nogales and Tijuana. Padrisimo.

Muchas Gracia Chica por los recuerdos. (please excuse my Spanglish)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 31, 2013:

You said it Bill! It does make me smile. Glad this brightened your day and glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for your great comments!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 31, 2013:

It's hard to listen to mariachi and be in a bad mood. Have you noticed that? One naturally smiles when that music is playing. How cool is that?

Just about as cool as this article, that's how cool! :)

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