Most Americans know mariachi as the bands in sombreros and uniforms with silver broaches up the pants legs who play in restaurants. Often all-male, the surround your table and play high energy music on violins, guitars big fat guitars known as guitarróns, and sometimes horns. And they play for tips. If you visit Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, you will see multiple mariachis all angling for commissions – play at your wedding, your birthday or even your funeral (please pay in advance).
But in Mexico, mariachi is a high art form. Mariachi originated in southern Jalisco state in the late 18th or early 19th century with instruments originally introduced by the Spaniards – violins, guitars, guitarrós, and vihuelas; harps and trumpets came later. Its earliest use was during Catholic Mass but the criollos (Mexicans of Spanish descent) took them out of the church and into the plazas where mariachi became more street-joyful, and at times scandalous, satirical or even anti-church.
Mariachi has spread through the country and even the world, and of course to LA, which used to be Mexico and has a large mariachi community. And mariachi in Mexico is played from the stage, not the floor of a restaurant (except in tourist areas like Tlaquepaque in Guadalajara). There is a 4-day international Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara every year that attracts hundreds of bands and thousands of spectators and is itself surround by a number of smaller regional mariachi festivals. It is a very big deal. And the bands get paid.
And like music in every nation, mariachi is a view into the soul of Mexico. Mariachi goes beyond music for Mexicans: it is the sum of centuries of cultural, social and political revolution distilled into a musical form and surrounding traditions that encapsulate the essence of Mexico and its people. It is an art form that is unique to Mexico and as such has become emblematic of country and a fierce source of pride. Which is why I was looking forward to the Ajijic mariachi Festival at the Lake Chapala Society campus last weekend.
Ironically, the view I got into the soul of Mexico was through a lens of bands from Los Angeles and San Diego; only one of the three bands at the festival was actually Mexican and it was made up of 9 – 17-year-olds, who, BTW, were terrific.
The headliner was the award-winning Mariachi Estrella de Chula Vista, which made its fifth trip from San Diego to the Lake Chapala Society’s annual Mariachi Festival, accompanied by the Los Angeles-based Grupo Bella. The local band was Ajijic’s young but highly accomplished Mariachi Torres. The event was packed – several hundred spectators, both Ex-Pats and Mexicans, were jammed into chairs on the LCS lawn and gazebo. They were treated to some of the best Mariachi from both sides of the border, along with conversations with the musicians and samples of locally grown and distilled Sandy & Daniel Tequila. Who could ask for more?
The headliner Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista began as a high school mariachi band outside of San Diego, CA. When members of the original group graduated and set off to work or college they wanted to continue playing and touring, so the director, Mark Foglequist, organized the Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista the all-star team. Now one of the best mariachis in the US, Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista has won numerous awards including being named two- time Grand Champions twice at the Albuquerque Mariachi Spectacular.
The second band, Grupo Bella, is made up of Grammy Award-winning musicians from Los Angeles. It began as an all-female group, but then added Michael Tejada on the harp, making it an almost all female band that uses Mariachi instrumentation to add a modern twist to Mariachi
music while still preserving its essence. Directed by the Grammy-award winning vocalist and composer Vanessa Ramirez who tours Mexico with the band’s harpist in search of original Mexican music. The band also featured zapeteado dancing – known in the US as the Mexican Hat Dance, but far more complex – and violinists who strolled through the crowd while playing.
The local band, Mariachi Torres, which opened up the afternoon concert is drawn from a single-family plus two musician friends. They stunned the audience with their professional-level skill despite the very young ages of some of the players, 9 – 17 years old. Led by their beaming father, Mariachi Torres set the tone for the day – a very high level of talent and a lot of fun.
As the bar in back buzzed and the tequila samples flowed, the music just got better and better. Each band got standing ovations, and when zapateado dancers got on the wood platform with Grupo Bella they were met with a forest of cell cams and applause. The event was packed from beginning to end and no one left early. It was Mariachi Euphoria and I loved it.
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