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Mexican Music Bands

Mexican Musical History & Tradition

by José Luis Ovalle


en Español⇒

El Mariachi — From town square gazebos to concert halls


The Mariachi originated in the Central Pacific region, specifically the state of Jalisco. The mariachi represents the newest and most innovative interpreter of "Sones and Jarabes". However, unlike most other Mexican musicians, these are urban ensembles generally catering to city dwellers looking for a good time, far removed from the rural nature of folk music. The origin of the ensemble has been at the core of heated controversies.

The most common theory is the romantic legend in which Mariachis played for French weddings; impossible to accept because the French did not use rural ensembles as entertainment for their social affairs. And even if such legend would be true, the success of the groups would have made it all the way to France. Recently the theory was completely discredited because it was proved by linguists and other experts, that the word already existed long before the French intervention.

A more acceptable theory states that in Jalisco, at the turn of the XIX century, the word mariachi was given to a tree trunk carried around by musicians for people to dance on. With time the trunk stopped being carried and the name remained to identify the musicians forever after. The harp, violins, and guitars which were the original instruments of the Spanish orchestras in theater and dance representations, became the basis of a mariachi band. Modern Mariachi groups include as many as six to eight violins, two trumpets, and a guitar, all instruments of European origin. The high pitched vihuela and the Bass guitar guitarron are Mexican instruments derived from the Spanish guitar, but manufactured locally. Trumpets were added around 1930 to augment the sonority level for live performances and with time replaced the harp.

Initially, mariachis played sones, and sones are dances, however, music played today by modern mariachis is seldom used for dancing, unless requested by specialized folk dance companies. Singing is a must for all mariachi musicians, therefore very powerful, clear alto, contralto and baritone voices can be found. The repertoire includes "vernacular" music, songs of love or pain, patriotism or pure enjoyment. Highly recognized mariachis such as the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan and its slogan" "Mejor mariachi del mundo" (The best Mariachi in the world) include classical, semi-classical, instrumental and international music. The mariachi has become an elite ensemble found at all social and artistic affairs.


Wind Bands — A Military Legacy


The development of the first wind bands as we know them today goes back to the mid 1800's, when communities tried to imitate the military bands imported during the brief reign of Austrian Emperor Maximillian. Porfirio Diaz and Benito Juarez, both commissioned the creation of similar bands in their native Oaxaca. The popularity of these ensembles became evident in the XX century after the revolution of 1910; when local authorities everywhere formed wind bands with military musicians, to play every Sunday at the main square gazebo as public entertainment.

Bandas de viento appeared first in the states of Oaxaca and Morelos, followed almost immediately by all central states. Many of these ensembles today are found in mestizo communities with strong indigenous elements. With very slight differences, La banda de Tlayacapan in Morelos, The Chilena bands of Costa Chica in Oaxaca and Guerrero, the Zacatecas Big Drum Band, The Tehuantepec orchestras, as well as the Yucateca and the mother of all bands: the Sinaloa band, are all related and share the same history.

The instrumentation and the musical style are determined by the region. For instance: The Tamborazo Zacatecano differs in size, number and instrumentation form the banda Sinaloense. The immediately evident difference is the absence of the tuba in the Tamborazo, while in the banda the tuba is indispensable. The reason why today's Banda music is more closely associated with Sinaloa is because since the late 40's radio, TV, and the publication of recordings distributed Don Cruz Lizarraga's Banda Sinaloense del Recodo repertoire as exclusive of Sinaloa, when in reality it included a varied selection of reginal music from all over Mexico.

Modern Bandas include all sorts of XX century's rhythms, and a recent resurgence of regional music brought back the Son as a dance style.


El Conjunto Norteño — Modern Mexico


The Czechoslovakian polka, The Polish mazurka and redowa, the Scottish schottische, the Austrian Waltzen, and English square dancing were brought into Mexico towards the last decade of the Colonial period (1521-1810) as ballroom dancing. The fashion of importing European music remained en vogue through the French Intervention (1862-1867) and into the Porfirian regime (1876-1911) by the aristocracy of the time.


Previously, right before the Mexican American war of the 1840's, the Texan settlers of German descent brought the original taste of the European polka and the musical instruments to play it: the bass guitar, the accordion and the saxophone among others. The ensemble became widely accepted and giving it local characteristics; natives in Texas and northern Mexico adopted the style and the conjunto was born.

The costuming of the American Western frontier settlers became so pervasive that it is still en vogue almost unaltered over 100 years later, all over Mexico and Tejas. The musical repertoire or most conjuntos today still includes lots of dancing: polkas, sung waltzes (corridos), some chotis and redova (called slow polkas) and huapangos, which is a peculiar norteño styling of sones and jarabes. Also modern American and foreign tropical rhythms, such as cumbias, merengues, bachatas and ballenatos are found. Singing is of utmost importance and good voices can be heard; although the modern commercial trend of incorporating performers who cannot sing or play but look good is beginning to deteriorate the essence of the conjunto.


String Ensembles — The Mexican Soul


String ensembles play mestizo music that evolved from Spanish folklore almost exclusively. While the mariachi and the wind band have completely commercialized and adapted to modern times; string ensembles of Mexico still retain the basic flavors of the son and the jarabe. Like the mariachi, the development of all Mexican string ensembles came from imitating the groups that the locals saw descend from the Spanish galleons, or from the theater companies that toured Mexico during the colony.

In some rare cases such as the case of the Estudiantina; the concept just migrated unchanged from Spain to Mexico. Typical string ensembles have designated a specific instrument to carry the melody; for instance the harp in Veracruz and the violin in La Huasteca near the Gulf of Mexico, and Tierra Caliente in the Southern Pacific. These two last forms are so improvisational that master musicians from La Huasteca and Guerrero are revered performers around the world. Singing these two forms is also as jazzy and highly skilled as the accompaniment. However, perhaps the most commanding string ensemble is the Conjunto Jarocho, second only to the Mariachi in popularity and able to make anyone dance. The light, fast paced style is a favorite among all Mexicans.




© Copyright José Luis Ovalle, 2007 - 2017. All Rights Reserved. Derechos reservados.

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