Published Jan. 10, 2006
If Mexican food could make sound (other than the scream caused by a searing chile), it would be mariachi. Mariachi is the folk music of Mexico, a marriage of Indian rhythms and Spanish instrumentation. Its spice and sauce speak of our sunny southern North American neighbor, where Spaniards, themselves a blend of Celtic, Roman and Arabic Moorish cultures and bloodlines, mingled with Indians and blacks to become mestizos, the melange of dark-complected people who make up the Mexican population. Mariachi’s rich sound begins with a comforting tortilla base of nylon-strung guitars: the vihuela, a five-string rhythm guitar; the bajo sexto, a 12-string tuned lower than a normal guitar (bajo meaning low); and the guitarron, the giant six-string bass. One or two trumpets add salsa and Mexican sunshine to the sound, and the sweet sound of violins playing close harmonies contrasts sharply with the Iberian brass. The rhythm shifts from the beat to irresistible syncopation (an irregular procession from bar to bar, as my former violin teacher liked to say). Accordions and waltzes in the north attest to German influence.
The costumes of the musicians match mariachi’s sunny salsa sound. Musicians originally wore the calzones de manta and huaraches, the white cotton trousers and shirts and the sandals of the peasants, but in the 1930s they began wearing the outfit of the charro, the Mexican horseman, a waist-length jacket and tight trousers that are slightly open at the ankles to allow room for riding boots. The outfit is topped by fancy sombreros.
The group that all mariachis emulate is Mariachi Vargas, led by Rubin Fuentes, who recorded with Linda Ronstadt. He standardized arrangements and used written music. I came across mariachi through Ronstadt’s “Canciones de mi Padre” (Songs of my Father), released in 1987. The record was a collaboration between a woman possessing one of the best voices in pop music and top mariachi musicians of the Southwest. I bought Canciones in 1987 but neglected it for years until, on New Year’s Eve, I played it when we had company. I recorded it to CD the next day, and now I love it as much as the enchiladas, tacos and burritos that spice up my diet, its songs bringing Mexican sunshine to these dreary gray days.
Digging deeply into the album, I found an intriguing minor-key son called “Rogaciano el Huapanguero.” The son (plural sones) is the popular song that often breaks into falsetto singing and is the basis of mariachi. “La Bamba” is the son most familiar to gringos, thanks to the pop version. A huapango is a son huasteco, from the Vera Cruz region, and a huapanguero is a singer of huapangos. “Rogaciano” describes the sorrow of the huasteco region at the death of its huapanguero: “La huasteco est de luto/Se muri su huapanguero/Ya no se oye aquel falsete/Que es el alma del trovero” (“The huasteca is in mourning/Its huapanguero has died/You can no longer hear that falsetto/Which is the soul of the troubadour.”) The son further describes the mourning sugar mill that sighs with each turn, and Cecilia, the patron saint of music, cries inconsolably. Ronstadt juxtaposes this song with the carefree resignation of “Y Andale,” about a man who cannot have the senorita he loves and so spends his days drinking: “Qu dirn los de tu casa/Cuando me miran tomando/Pensarn que por tu causa/Yo me vivo emborrachando/Y andale” (“What will they say those in your house/When they see me drinking/Will they think that it’s on account of you/That I live my life drinking/Get on with it.”) (I remember “Andale, andale” from the mouse Speedy Gonzalez in the Warner Brothers cartoons.)
The sones are balanced by dance tunes called the jarabe. Best known are “Jarabe Tapatio,” the “Mexican Hat Dance,” and “La Cucaracha” (“The Cockroach”). Both sones and jarabes are made for dancing, the woman in brightly colored swirling skirts a classic image of Mexico.
Often a popular artist will introduce a lesser known style to larger audiences, and Ronstadt’s album spurred me to find more mariachi. I looked for CDs by other groups, and I found a book of mariachi violin music at my favorite folk music source. I’m ready to play chile violin. Y andale.