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A History of Mariachi Bands
With all that goes on in the downtown area of Cozumel for visitors to see, there is nothing more compelling on the streets of Cozumel than a strolling band of mariachis. With their meticulously detailed outfits, large sombreros and cowboy boots, mariachis are an unmistakeable element of Mexican culture. Carismatic and charming, the booming, harmonic voices of the mariachis sing in beautiful harmony with their rythmic instruments.

The Coca Indians who lived in the hills of the central part of Jalisco, knows as Cocula, are credited with the origin of the mariachi. Prior to the arrival of Cortéz the music of Mexico was simply played with rattles, drums, reed and clay flutes as well as conch-shell horns and was mainly a part of religious celebrations. After the arrival of Spaniards in Mexico, instruments imported by the Spanish included violins, guitars, harps, brass horns and woodwinds. The Indian and mestizo musicians not only learned to play European instruments but also built their own with unique shapes and tonalities. It was around 1531 the Cocas combined their native music with the Spanish harp and violin. Then in 1576 the guitarilla, the small guitar with only four strings, was added for a unique sound.

Music and dance were important elements of Spanish theatrical productions and were enormously popular during the colonial period. The typical Spanish theatrical orchestra of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included violins, harp and guitars. It was from this group that several of the most distinctive regional ensembles of Mexico developed, including the Mariachi.

Musicologists and folklorists have argued for years over the origin of the word “mariachi.” While there will probably always be differing theories as to how the current word was derived by the Coca Indians, there is no question that mariachi and this style of music originated with the very artistic Coca tribe. Through the centuries more and more natives became interested in music. They learned to play has their fathers taught them, by ear. Musicians played and sang songs describing love, sorrow, famous deeds and heroes, horses and homes. Theirs was the "country music" of Mexico.

In the 1880's small groups of mariachis known as violines del cerro or "violins of the hills" began searching out occasions to play their music. They dressed in their best clothing consisting of a white shirt and pants with a red sash around the waist worn with simple sandals, large straw hats with ball fringe and a red sarape or black cotton blanket folded in half and draped over one shoulder. The dashing mariachi outfits we know today were to come much later.


In 1890's mariachis established their territory by traveling to nearby ranchers. In September, 1905, Juan Villaseñor, a ranch supervisor from the area of Cocula, took a group to Mexico City to play for President General Porfirio Diaz in celebration of "fiestas patrias" the 16th of September. This was the beginning of an Independence Day tradition that would grow stronger by the decade.

In the complete Mariachi group today there are as many as six to eight violins, two trumpets and a guitar—all standard European instruments. Then there is a high-pitched, round-backed guitar (vihuela), a deep toned guitar (guitarrón) which serves as the bass of the ensemble, and a Mexican folk harp which ornaments the melody. Mariachi music is not just music to be played and sung. From the very beginning it was music to be danced.

National PrideBy the 1930’s Mariachi musicians had begun wearing the charro costume we see today consisting of a waist-length jacket and tight wool pants which open slightly at the ankle to fit over a short riding boot. Both pants and jacket are often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs or silver buttons or conchos in a variety of shapes. As noted earlier, prior to that time photographs show early Mariachis dressed in homespun white cotton pants and shirts and leather sandals, the clothes worn by most peasants in Jalisco.

The original mariachis played seated. Not until the first trumpet joined the group in the 1940s did they start standing. "El Trompetas," a musician simply known as "The Trumpeter," was a master of the instrument and changed the mariachi sound forever.

By the 1950’s the Mariachi ensemble had become a complete, adaptable orchestra with the ability to retain its traditional base while it was assimilating new musical ideas and styles. Mariachis often help celebrate the great moments in the lives of the Mexican people. With the serenade the Mariachi participate in the rite of courtship. In a society where the young members of opposite sexes were kept apart, the serenade was a means by which a young man could send a message of love to the woman of his heart. “Las Mañanitas” is the traditional song for saints days and birthdays. Mariachis are commonly hired for baptisms, weddings, patriotic holidays and even funerals.


Traditional Holiday Mariachi!


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