13 September 2005

Traditional mariachi lives on in Jalisco

Mariachi Tradicional Azteca

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico

COCULA, Jalisco Before playing a gig with his group Mariachi Tradicional Azteca, Joaquín Arredondo dons an outfit of a loose-fitting white cotton shirt and matching pants, a rustic blanket slung over his left shoulder, a palm-leaf sombrero, and faded sandals. Once dressed, he hoists his guitarrón, a fat guitar-like bass instrument, and is ready to give audiences a taste of Mexico's famed mariachi music in its original form.

"Traditional mariachi is the essence of Jalisco," the third-generation musician said after playing at a recent festival in Cocula in the western state of Jalisco. "It's how mariachi was at the end of the 1800s."

His music and clothing differ little from pioneering group Mariachi de Justo Villa, a Cocula quartet that town residents say thrust mariachi music into the national consciousness 100 years ago, when it played a concert at former president Porfirio Diaz's birthday party in Mexico City's Castillo Chapultepec. Cocula, the self-proclaimed "cradle of mariachi," celebrated the anniversary of the famous gig earlier this month with a parade and concerts at which many of the artists played the traditional style in conjunction with Guadalajara's 12th Mariachi and Charreria Festival.

Mariachi has evolved considerably since the Spanish arrived in Cocula in 1532. Traditional mariachis preserve the genre's roots, drawing inspiration from a time when campesinos, or peasant farmers, "harvested corn and played music" in the countryside beyond the listening distance of hacienda owners, who preferred chamber music and other European imports.

The first mariachis wore typical clothes and sang about their lives in the countryside, playing a rustic style of music that featured some of the same shouting as today's groups, but lacking the attention-grabbing trumpets, orchestral-sounding violins and, most noticeably, garish charro cowboy suits.

Traditional mariachi originally featured three instruments: the violin, vihuela and guittarón, and the groups that played them were typically quartets. Mariachi Tradicional Azteca has eight members, all of whom sing in addition to playing a stringed instrument. Arredondo acknowledged the difference, but said, "It's the quality that's important … not the quantity" of musicians.


Arredondo and his fellow group members play mostly in festivals like Cocula's, but like their modern counterparts decked out in fancy threads, Mariachi Tradicional Azteca also performs its share of serenades, conquistas and mañanitas. Yet it plays a largely unknown genre.

"People here don't really know what it is," he explained. "In only the last five years, people have started to know it."

The Guadalajara mariachi festival now stages traditional concerts during the first few days of its annual event. Arredondo while grateful for the interest complained that organizers have excluded groups like his from the large galas in Guadalajara's legendary Teatro Degollado, relegating traditional mariachi to lesser venues in the Jalisco capital and the surrounding areas.

In Cocula, however, locals lined a parade route, cheering the traditional groups, who marched past the town's numerous birria restaurants with their contemporary peers.


The town, 50 kilometers south of Guadalajara on the highway to the Costa Alegre, takes credit for spreading mariachi beyond Western Mexico and not just through Mariachi de Justo Villa's exploits. Juan Hernández, a migrant from the town, helped make Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi the premiere mariachi destination in the country after he brought traditional-style bands from Cocula to serenade patrons at Tenampa, his Garibaldi cantina.

Cocula also claims responsibility for several key advances from the early days of mariachi, including the invention of both the guitarrón and the vihuela, a small 12-string guitar with gut strings, by indigenous locals. (Another version of the story says the vihuela comes from Germany and that the indigenous played a similar instrument made from an armadillo shell).

According to Elizabeth Balcazár, director of the Museo del Mariachi in Cocula, the conquering Spanish found an indigenous population with music skills upon arriving in Jalisco. The indigenous Coca later incorporated European instruments like the violin into their music, creating a unique fusion - now known as traditional mariachi.

Although the music defines Mexico in the minds of many, the word "mariachi" reputedly comes from the French word mariage and was coined during the reign of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, after the occupiers saw peones playing at weddings. Many historians and musicians dispute that account, however.

"Mariachi was called mariachi before the French arrived," said Francisco Gómez, a music teacher at the Guadalajara campus of Tec de Monterrey, adding the word mariachi most likely comes from the Nahuatl language.

The population of southern Jalisco didn't care much for the French, and so acerbic lyrics about the occupiers abound in many old mariachi songs. But while they were occasionally political, these older songs usually focused on everyday life, unlike modern ballads, which gush with feelings of love and are accompanied by forceful instruments and yells.

"The older music is more poetic, it's less aggressive," said José Luis Arellano Rodríguez, music director of Mariachi Tradicional Azteca and a psychologist by profession.

"Authentic music is much softer."

New technology hastened some of mariachi's biggest changes, radically changing its sound. In one example, a Mexico City radio station owner introduced the trumpet, hoping to create a more forceful sound for his broadcasts.

For uncertain reasons, "commercial mariachis" as members of Mariachi Tradicional Azteca dub their modern counterparts traded their simple campesino clothes for charro suits. According to one account, Porfirio Diaz ordered a group to change clothes prior to a gig for a visiting dignitary. Another version says the owner of the Televisa network provided charro suits for mariachis appearing on television.

The change in clothing grates some traditional mariachi musicians.

"This signifies poverty," Arredondo said, pointing to his cotton shirt. "The charro suit is a symbol of the rich."

Despite his preference for the traditional style, Arredondo, a self-described "hired gun," dons a charro suit two nights a week for performances with a commercial group, but admitted, "Modern mariachi doesn't have much importance for me."

But the traditional style captivates the 45-year-old father of two, who said, "For me, it's a drug."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

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