Music From the Heart of Mexico

by Jay W. Sharp

My wife, Martha, and I discovered the music of the mariachi in a small café just off the central plaza in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, one rainy evening in February of 1959. We had both grown up in rural Texas, playing dinner-plate-size records that yielded scratchy renditions of the swing music of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and the ballads of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, the Andrews Sisters and Peggy Lee. We knew the melodies and lyrics by heart. Although we had heard that a fellow named Elvis Presley had recently attracted some attention singing about some blue suede shoes and a hound dog, our world of music at that time had been defined largely by the big bands and the balladeers of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s.


In that small café that rainy evening in Monterrey, we heard in the mariachi a genre of music totally new to us. The group, instruments in hand, had walked in off the street during a lull in the rain. Each musician wore tightly cut pants and a short-waisted jacket. As I recall, two of the four played violins, one played a small guitar with a strange convex back, and one played a large guitar with a convex back. One of the violinists sang lead, the others accompanied him. They took their music, sometimes on beat, sometimes syncopated, from table to table, playing for tips.

They sang about machismo, new love, beautiful eyes, lost love, death, witches, drowning mules, cockroaches, abandonment, impoverishment, cock fights, good whiskey, old San Juan, gringos, Guadalajara, puro Mexicanos and “Viva Mexico.” Their music evoked passion, joy, anguish, humor and a patriotic swell. We did not understand it then, but as we would learn later, we were looking through the prism of the mariachi into the heart of Mexico.
Finally, the mariachis came to our table, seeing in us two young gringos, hands touching. As their fingers flew over strings, they seemed to be releasing the music, rather than coaxing it, from their instruments:

Sólamente una vez amé en la vida
Sólamente una vez y nada más.
Una vez nada más en mi huerto brilló la esperanza,
La esperanza que alumbra el camino de mi soledad.

Only once will I love in this life,
Only once and never more.
Only once and never more in my lovely garden of hope,
The hope that illuminates the road of my loneliness.

I handed the lead singer 20 pesos. He took his mariachis out the door and into the wet night, leaving the melody lingering in our hearts and minds. We would not soon forget Solamente Una Vez. You see, we were on our honeymoon.

The Mariachi Story

Mariachi – a term of uncertain origin that applies generally to the ensembles, the individual musicians, the music and the style – budded from the orchestral groups of theater productions during Spanish colonial times in Mexico. It took root in the western part of the country, possibly first in an agricultural village by the name of Cocula, in the state of Jalisco. It blossomed among the peónes – the people of the soil – as a form of folk music, producing the interwoven rhythms and harmonies of Spain, the Native Americans and black Africa.
In the early years, mariachi groups traveled by foot, mule, horse or train across Mexico like wandering minstrels. With no formal education in music and with no understanding of written notes, the musicians blended, by ear, the lyricism of the harp, the sweetness of the violin, and the earthiness of the guitar into a range of melodies, some of them with labyrinthine complexity.
They played for tips in the central plazas and cafés of towns and villages, performing songs by request. They played for hire at the haciendas of wealthy rancheros, or ranchers. They played for fees at holiday festivals, village fiestas, patriotic celebrations, house parties, baptisms, weddings, funerals and graveside services (often performing the deceased’s favorite mariachi songs). They played for performances by Mexico’s regional dance troupes. They played for fandangos—a dance celebration with roots in the ancient history of Andalucia, in southern Spain. They serenaded beautiful young women on the behalf of lovesick suitors.

In the early days, the mariachis co-opted the instruments of the Church, sometimes using them to play songs that poked fun at the priests, much to the exasperation of the good fathers. Later, mariachis won the favor of the Church. Sanctioned by the priests, they played at folk masses and church festivals, including even the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.


Following the 1910/1920 revolt against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz – it is called THE Revolution in Mexico – mariachi music became an expression of Mexican pride and patriotism, a memorial to national heroes and to the peónes’ struggles. Mariachis followed a broad migration from villages and haciendas into the cities, particularly Mexico City. Promoted by Lázaro Cárdenas, populist president elected in 1934, mariachis found favor among Mexican elites. Led by Rubén Fuentes and other legends, mariachis began learning to read music. They became popular figures in Mexican films and on radio shows. Mariachi issued from the soul of Mexico like jazz emerged from the spirit of the U. S.

The mariachi phenomenon rode the wave of immigration from Mexico into the desert Southwest during the 20th century, appearing early in Los Angeles, Tucson, San Antonio and other cities with large Hispanic populations. By mid-century, mariachis played at plazas and cafes. They appeared at festivals with Hispanic roots and parties in Hispanic homes. They played for performances of ballet folklorico groups, who perform the regional folk dances of Mexico. They serenaded beautiful young women. Some mariachi groups graduated from programs at middle school, high school and university levels as well-trained musicians who often played in performances with symphony orchestras. To the chagrin of some traditionalists, they enlisted women in the ensembles. Mariachi enthusiasts now hold international conferences, festivals and workshops in communities like Tucson, San Antonio and Las Cruces. Mariachi music reached a pinnacle in 1988, when the well-known performer Linda Ronstadt, called on her Hispanic roots to produce the album Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father). Mariachi is now a part of America’s musical heritage.


At the beginning, mariachis usually wore the traditional clothes of a Mexican laborer. They could afford no more. If they came from Jalisco, for instance, they likely wore white cotton shirts and pants, wide-brimmed straw hats, and sandals or possibly boots. They felt little concern about whether their clothes matched within an ensemble. In the wake of the rising patriotism of the nation after The Revolution, mariachis began to think of their clothes as emblematic of national pride. They began dressing in uniform costumes, modest at first. As they prospered, they turned to finely tailored, matching snug-fitting pants and short jackets ornamented with conchos (half-dollar-size silver disks), embroidered belts, large bow ties (monos), well-made ankle boots (botines) and sombreros—the style of dress of the wealthy ranchero or charro (a Mexican horseman), the man whose fields they had tilled and whose livestock they had herded. The dress became a declaration of liberation and democracy.

Mariachi Instruments and Voices

In the earliest mariachi groups – typically an ensemble of four – two musicians played violins; one played a small harp—the arpa mariachera, or the mariachi harp; the fourth played a small convex-backed, five-string guitar, the vihuela. They likely learned to play those instruments in their local churches. Sometimes, in impoverished villages that had few musical instruments, a mariachi had to play, perhaps, a flute, maybe even a clarinet, whatever was available to him. Over time, mariachis changed and modified their instruments. They incorporated the guitarra del golpe, an guitar-like instrument about three-quarters the size of a standard guitar; the guitarrón, an instrument that resembles an oversized vihuela and that largely replaced the cumbersome harp; and the guitarra cesta, an instrument similar to, but slightly larger than, the classic Spanish guitar. Soon after The Revolution, mariachi groups adopted the coronet, which they soon exchanged for the trumpet, signifying the newfound assertiveness of the peónes. Today, in a standard full mariachi ensemble, three or more musicians play violins; one plays the vihuela; one, the guitar, one, a guitarrón, and two, or sometimes three, play trumpets.

In top mariachi ensembles such as the famed Mariachi del Cobre, the singers, often with classical training, perform with vocal power, clarity, lyricism and wit. They cherish the freedom for creativity and self expression. They sing “evenly and elegantly,” keeping their voices with the “chest and head tone range correctly,” according to Michelle Alma Quintero in her article “The Mariachi Voice,” which appeared in the International Folk Culture Center web site in 1996.
With their traditions, dress, instruments and voices, mariachis have created an unmistakable musical panache.

The Music

Over the centuries, mariachis have cast their musical skein over perhaps two dozen distinctive styles of songs, including those from different regions within Mexico. They play, for instance, boleros, a style that includes Solamente Una Vez. They play pasodobles (the two step), with songs like España Cani taken from the dance music of the gitanos, or gypsies, of Spain. This style often recalls the pageantry of the bullfight. They play ranchera lento, a style performed with slow meter and powerful emotion: “volver, volver, volver a tus brazos otra vez” “to return, to return, to return to your arms once again” They tell stories in their songs, in the style called corrido, for instance: “ [Juan Charrasqueado] era valiente y arriesgado en el amor a last mujeres mas bonitas” “he was courageous and dashing in making love to the most beautiful women” You can, of course, guess what happened to Juan Charrasqueado. A jealous husband shot him. The mariachis perform the sones, or songs, of various regions across Mexico; the ballet folklorico music of various regions; and dance melodies called jarabe, huapango, danzon and cumbia. They play waltzes, polkas and even the schottische, which is derived from an old Scottish dance form. Inevitably, they play that perhaps most famous of all mariachi tunes, La Bamba, a festive stew of Spanish, African and indigenous rhythms born in Vera Cruz.

Mariachi in the Desert Southwest

You will hear the music – the signature of Mexico – at almost any special gathering of Hispanic people across the desert Southwest, where the mariachis give melodic life to fiestas, holidays and life’s passages. You will find it in community plazas and cafés, where mariachis, following tradition, will play your requests in return for tips. You will find it in concert halls and conferences, where the mariachis draw large and enthusiastic crowds. In particular, you will find the mariachis contributing to the celebrations of Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May, the day in 1862 when an outmanned and outgunned Mexican force defeated a French invasion force at Puebla, 60 miles east of Mexico City); Diez y Seiz de Septiembre (the 16th of September, the day in 1811 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his call for Mexican independence -- El Grito de Dolores – from the steps of his church in the city of Dolores Hidalgo, 160 miles northwest of Mexico City); and Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead, November 1 and 2, when Hispanic peoples of the Southwest join Mexico in a festive celebration of life and remembrance of the dead).

Not long ago, my wife, Martha, and I went to an Hispanic festival in southern New Mexico. I asked a small mariachi group to play our old favorite, Solamente Una Vez. The musicians saw us, I’m sure, as two aging gringos, hands touching. Their fingers flew over strings, seeming to release the music, rather than coaxing it, from their instruments. They sang the old bolero for Martha.
Sólamente una vez amé en la vida
Sólamente una vez y nada más
I gave the lead singer five dollars. He took his mariachis to the next request, leaving our melody lingering in our hearts and minds. We would not soon forget that performance of Solamente Una Vez. You see, we were celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary.



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