What is a Mariachi Band?

Loud, energetic and instantly recognisable, mariachi music will no doubt be the soundtrack to your Mexican getaway.

When you think mariachi, you may well think of the colourful outfits and stomping shoes of a mariachi band, but the word itself refers to a type of music native to Mexico. A mariachi band performs this traditional music with a specific set of instruments, but no set number of musicians, meaning each band can create a very distinctive sound.

A history in mariachi

Although it’s believed the origins of mariachi date back more than hundreds of years, the first official references to it can be traced to the 19th century in Western Mexico.

It wasn’t until the 1930s however that mariachi as we know it began to take shape, when one of the world’s most established bands at the time – the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan – went to Mexico City to play at the President’s inauguration.

This performance captivated the city, and began the development of mariachi in its current form.

It was long believed that the word mariachi derived from the French word for marriage, given that this type of music is commonly played at Mexican weddings, but this has since been disproven. There are now a number of different theories as to where the word originated, but as for the music itself, this is traced back to Cocula, in the state of Jalisco.

Today, mariachi bands are incredibly common, and don’t just play at weddings any more. You can find bands roaming the streets of Mexican cities and tourist resorts to entertain the crowds, in restaurants, and at parties and festivals such as Dia de los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo.

Recognised by UNESCO as ‘living heritage’, mariachi is music that is intrinsically woven into the cultural fabric of Mexico.

The musical stylings of mariachi

A mariachi band will typically have at least two violins and two trumpets, along with a Spanish guitar and guitarron, which is an instrument similar to a small acoustic bass guitar. The band will also have a player on the vihuela, a small, high-pitched guitar that is perhaps one of the most recognizable instruments.

There can be as few as five or six members in a band, or over 20 depending on the occasion. The songs are accompanied by singing, and a traditional dance known as the zapateado – a flamenco dance with rhythmic stamping of the feet.

Hailing from Spain, this type of dance is flamenco-esque, involving a great deal of rhythmic pounding of heels in sync with the beat of the music, along with clapping and singing.

How to recognise a mariachi band

Perhaps the easiest way to recognise a traditional Mexican mariachi band is through their traditional dress, known as charro suits.

Originally, bands played in a simple white trousers and shirt combination, but the evolution of mariachi bands in the 1930s, and the advent of Technicolor, three-colour movies, incited a more vibrant approach.

Today, the traditional outfit consists of bright colours such as yellow and red, and the suits are often adorned with elaborate embroidery. Waist-length jackets are worn over fitted trousers, and the look is completed with bow ties, sombreros and of course, boots fit for dancing zapateado.

Along with the distinctive collection of instruments and dress, another easy way to identify a mariachi band is to look at the singers – mariachis don’t have a lead singer, but rather assign each different band player a part to sing in unison.

So there you have it – loud colours, a big sound and a musical traditional dating back more than 80 years, mariachi is an experience not to be missed on a trip to Mexico.

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