South of the Border

I have come to enjoy being exposed to different sorts of music of late, beyond my normal diet of adult alternative, rockabilly, darkwave and death metal. One that has been introduced to me by my own dear Kirawill has been traditional Mariachi.

Like so many things of that nature, Mariachi is not only a joy filled musical expression, but is also rich with cultural and historical significance. It is a perfect example of the way that music research and understanding can illuminate the beauty of a society. The following article looks at the history of Mariachi, and what it means to Mexican and Latin culture today.

The following is reposted from More Intelligent Life.


These days, visitors to Mexico City are rarely encouraged to go to Plaza Garibaldi, the cobbled square where for almost a century Mexico’s mariachi musicians have sung ardently to the public of love, loss and betrayal. People get near to it. The rest of the city centre, with its baroque palaces, ancestral temples, and majestic Zócalo has been polished up to appeal to the clean-living sort (as if by magic, street merchants have been swept away and the main square, this Christmas, became an ice rink).

But Garibaldi, just a few blocks away, feels like the same country in an older, less worldly, century. It is reckless and messy. It adjoins a neighbourhood notorious for drug gangs and cheap brothels. And it peddles music, at 100 pesos ($10) a song, dragged nostalgically out of Mexico’s past, which celebrates the lovers and drunks, sinners and misfits to whom the plaza has long been abandoned.

At the dead of night, it can be a window into the darker, more misanthropic side of the Mexican soul, the part that careens at times, like the music itself, from tears of ecstasy to agony, anger and grief. As a few friends and I head gingerly to El Tenampa, a bar that since the 1920s has been a beacon of mariachi music to revellers across the capital, there are two glue-addled street children, tearing at each other’s hair. The cluster of mariachis has thinned, and those that remain are not the strutting peacocks that I remember filling the square with song and gaiety in the past. They have gone home. Those left are bow-legged, bent-backed; their teeth rotted from tequila and stained by tobacco.

In the bar, a singer or two carries a whisper of virtuosity, but behind him the ageing musicians wear anoraks over their silver-studded uniforms to keep out the cold. They struggle to stop yawning. It is, indeed, late and bitterly cold. I walk down the long, zinc bar inside El Tenampa on which coal stoves used to burn, warming the grenadine punch that the mariachis drank in the early days. The lyrics of “Mi Tenampa”, the song dedicated to the bar by the greatest mariachi of all, José Alfredo Jiménez, are painted on the wall above my head. The dipsomaniac’s bitter refrain only adds to the chill.

“You, what do you know about life on the town?
You, what do you know about passions?
When you hear a mariachi
you don’t even understand the songs.”

And then I find what I am looking for, in the most furtive corner of the salon. There is a flicker of warmth and laughter in the eyes of a small group of mariachis that gleams like the gold in their teeth. Their elbows swing as they play, trumpets ring, and bows dance gaily up and down the violin strings. In the midst of them, an elderly man, with grey hair, and a distinguished, senatorial look, has a beautiful woman, barely 30, in his arms. It is clear they are both a song and a dance away from becoming lovers–at least for tonight–and they are alone, except for their accompanists. The musicians beam, complicit in the giddiness of the couple, the hint of adultery, the defiance of convention, all stoked up by their songs. It is a state of inebriated ecstasy I savour deeply. In the thrall of such music, in the same plaza, I first kissed my wife.

Plaza Garibaldi, and mariachi music, can do strange things to a person, not least in encouraging them along the road to “martyrmony”, as Mexicans (my wife included) jokingly call marriage. Not far across town is a shrine to Saint Jude Thaddeus, the Catholic saint of lost causes, which causes traffic jams in Mexico City on the 28th of each month because of the throngs gathering outside looking for hope where there is none. Garibaldi is the secular equivalent, open every night of the year. It drains the forlorn of cash, much as the church does, and snarls the traffic on the six-lane highway that runs alongside it, as good-looking mariachis run beside the cars touting for business, their sharp-toed boots clattering along the tarmac.

But it is the antithesis of the church. Whether down on their luck, or high as a kite on tequila, Mexicans make their way to Garibaldi to carouse, to woo, to drown in sorrow, to serenade in song. At its worst, it stinks of desperation, and even the police seem to have given up patrolling it. But at its most vigorous, on the last Friday of each month, when workers have cashed their pay cheques and have bundles of 100-peso notes to peel off, and the dying sun sets off the ochre in their flushed cheeks, Garibaldi is a carnival of sound and colour.

With shoulders back, and barrel chests threatening to burst the silver buttons on their waistcoats, sombrero-wearing singers bellow out their “ay ay ays” to the open air, competing with rivals across the square. They summon up all the charisma they can muster to bring fresh life to songs Mexicans have been listening to from mellifluous screen gods such as Pedro Infante since the 1940s. It is tough competition. Trumpets, violins, guitars and the baseline plod of the guitarrón create such dissonance that it sounds like an orchestra in a permanent state of tuning up. But when you hire a mariachi band, you don’t expect chamber music. You throw yourself into the songs, scorn trite feelings, and sing until your throat burns for tequila. It’s a messy process. I’ve seen listeners (and mariachis) so drunk they tip over backwards on the high notes. What’s particularly curious about it in today’s Mexico, where you are more likely to be a Starbucks’ barista than a cowboy, is how powerfully the music still resonates. A song about a broken-down gambler crawling back to his hometown in the state of Guanajuato starts:

“Life is worthless
it is worth nothing
it always starts off in tears
and crying is how it ends.
That’s why, in this world, life is worth nothing.”

The first few notes rarely fail to moisten the eyes of a friend of mine who is a dentist, even though he hasn’t lived in Guanajuato for 20 years, and would far prefer an iPhone than to gamble his money on a cockfight. Likewise, the complex cantina psychology of “El Rey”, one of José Alfredo’s most treasured songs, makes even mild-mannered Mexican bureaucrats clench their fists, goddamit:

“I don’t have a throne, nor a queen,
and no one understands me,
but I still am the king.”

Why does this music, known as ranchera after the rugged farming life that it harks back to, maintain such a hold over the Mexican pysche more than 100 years after its first protagonists tramped into Mexico City from the provinces to serenade the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, in 1905? In one of the world’s biggest cities, how has this nostalgia for a rural idyll, embodied by fresh-faced cowboys and cowgirls with few of the Indian features of mestizo (mixed-race) Mexico, endured for so long?

To answer those questions, I am pointed to a small stall on a street running off Garibaldi, where Juan Mercado, a part-time photographer, does a brisk business selling violin and guitar strings for 20 pesos apiece. In the course of business, he has talked to most mariachis who have played in the square, and knows their stories. He sells me an old compact disk, with a grainy picture of four musicians in huarache sandals and muslin shirts on the cover. It is, the cover says, “the Very First Mariachi Recordings”, done by American record companies in 1908-09. “El Periquito”, the first song, is a cheeky son that, to me, unconsciously echoes Rome’s mischievous poet, Catullus (“My Lady’s Pet Sparrow is Dead”):

“I like your Parakeet, ma’am
because of its yellow colour
perhaps you could sell it to me
without your husband knowing/Larala, la la/larala la la.”

“Limoncito” is also a bucolic gem, with none of the bravura or brass instruments that became the hallmarks of mariachi music a few decades later:

“As I passed by your window,
you threw a lemon at me.
The juice hit my face;
the blow struck my heart…Lemon, lemon,
born by the riverside,
if you no longer love me,
a great romance has been lost…”

Mr Mercado puts me in touch with Hermes Rafael, a charming historian and poet, who has written more about the arrival of mariachis into Mexico City than anyone, and helped rescue many sones from dusty oblivion.

Mr Rafael reminds me that it was a year after those lilting songs were recorded that Mexico was plunged into revolutionary turmoil, and in 1911, Díaz, the dictator, fled to France. For most of that bloody decade, the sweep of revolutionary armies across Mexico broke down some of the regional barriers created by the Sierra Madre, the mountainous dividing line that runs down western Mexico. Music travelled too.

By the 1920s the capital began to swell with newcomers from the provinces as Mexico began its long journey to industrialisation, and more mariachi troupes arrived in Mexico City from the western state of Jalisco, where the music has its roots. One enterprising Jaliscense, sensing their popularity and recalling the festive cantinas of his home town, founded a bar, El Tenampa, in Plaza Garibaldi. For the purposes of mariachi music, says Mr Rafael, it was perfect. There were no government offices nearby, and no church. “The number one enemy of the mariachi was the church,” he tells me. At about the same time, the religious wars in Mexico that Graham Greene writes about in “The Power and the Glory” tore through the state of Jalisco. Some mariachis went home to fight. Others fled from their villages to Mexico City. With more than one band to play in El Tenampa, they spilled out into the square. So, the Garibaldi tradition was born.

The mistrust between mariachi and church is historically unfair perhaps, because it was Catholic missionaries from Spain who first brought stringed instruments, such as the guitar-like vihuela, to accompany the drums and pipes of the conquered people. But the antipathy dates back centuries, and is documented in a marvellous book recently published in Mexico, “El Mariachi, by Jesús Jáuregui, an anthropologist. He cites the first written evidence of the word mariachi in an angry letter written by a Mexican priest to his bishop in May 1852. It complains of the “fandangos” that have corrupted the Easter celebrations in his village, notably “men going about on foot and on horseback shouting as if they were mad on account of the wine that they have drunk.” He continues: “We all know the crimes and excesses that are committed as part of these revelries, that generally in these parts are known as mariachis.”

That letter, as well as other documents dug up by Mr Jáuregui, may help dispel one of the most common myths about mariachis. It has long been believed that the name derives from the French word mariage, and was coined by Frenchmen who came to Mexico under the Napoleonic emperor Maximilian I between 1864 and his execution in 1867. Mr Jáuregui and Mr Rafael say the evidence firmly disproves this, and that the root of the word is more likely indigenous.

“El Mariachi” also paints a compelling picture of how those gentle sones from Cocula in a few decades grew into the shrill, trumpet-blasting celebrations of machismo, womanising and tequila that still strike such a chord among Mexicans today.

In a way, it was cleverly contrived. Lázaro Cárdenas, the charismatic 1930s president whose name is given to the highway leading to Garibaldi, ruled in an era when people’s regional identities were gradually enveloped by a national one. It was a time when the values of the 1910-17 revolution, such as land, liberty and patriotism, were being sentimentalised in Mexican cinema. Transmission by radio and cinema of the ranchera style, celebrating the simple, traditional life of the peasant, and his regional roots, gave the new urbanites a means of easing their sense of dislocation. It also worked in reverse, connecting the peasantry with the modernising sounds of Mexico City. The movie idols, such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, were tall, fair-skinned and cocky, investing them with an international stature that darker-skinned Mexicans quietly coveted. And they wore dashing charro suits with silver embroidery, which made them look prosperous.

No wonder Mexicans lapped it up. The music gave them a strong sense of their own identity, and played perfectly with the message of Mr Cardenas’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled from 1929-2000. Born in the era of the black-and-white charro movie, the party’s ability to help define what it meant to be Mexican–its peasants were as artfully romanticised as its industrial workers–kept it in power until the internet age. Mariachi music has lasted even longer.

In the meantime, the composer, José Alfredo, arrived on the scene, working at a bar just off Garibaldi. An unschooled writer of at least 600 songs, he took mariachi music out of its traditional, rustic setting, and made women his main theme–cause of so much sublime happiness and base misery. He wrote from the heart–and from the bottle–and gave Mexicans music to carry them through the high-growth, giddy era of the 1960s, when nation-building was giving way to a more individualist ethos. Legend has it, his biggest hit “Ella”, which starts:

“I’m tired of begging her
I’m tired of telling her that without her I’ll die of sadness…”

was inspired by a love in real life that led him to write a follow-up, “Yo”:

“I’m drunk
I’m still drinking
because destiny has changed my luck.
Your tenderness means nothing to me now
My heart has forgotten you forever.”

Mr Rafael puts the end of the authentic era of the mariachis at about the time of Jose Alfredo’s death (of a ruined liver) in 1973. He crawled out of his hospital bed to compose one last song, “Gracias”, to his fans. In it, he thanked them for their applause, which meant so much more to him than money. He’d rather have two hearts than money, he sang.

But his music didn’t die, even if the compositions of his successors grew ever lighter and flimsier. One afternoon this Christmas, as I crawled in a taxi through the impenetrable traffic of Mexico City, I found a handful of mariachis with greying hair and handsome faces, flagging down customers near Garibaldi. I stopped. They were seven brothers, and they set up their band around the time José Alfredo was at his prime more than 40 years ago. Their band has several names, but the one I liked best was El Mariachi Diplomatico. During the 1970s and 1980s they flew around the world representing the Mexican government abroad, and they have photos of themselves in an array of beautifully tailored charro suits in the Swiss Alps, in Berlin, in Spain, in Saudi Arabia (where they had to pour away a case of tequila on arrival).

They are down on their luck, however. In the interminable years of economic hardship since the 1980s, the tender nostalgia of mariachi music has increasingly given way to the cynicism of home-grown narco corridas, celebrating the exploits of drug lords and crooked cops. Seven-piece bands are expensive to keep going; the soles of boots wear out; the suits fray. And mariachis have flourished all over the world, from Japan to Germany, so why fly them in any more? (On my wife’s birthday in October, I discovered a five-piece mariachi band living in Clapham North, London. They burst in from the street and raised the roof.)

Graciously, however, this resolute band of “diplomatic” mariachis invited my family and I to a breakfast gathering of textile unions on January 7th, the 101st anniversary of a massacre of weavers by Porfirio Díaz’s forces which helped provoke the revolution at the start of the 20th century. In the 21st century, it was a touching, but incongruous performance: a troupe of 60-year-old mariachis, playing in front of a mural of bullet-spattered workers, to the few dozen militant unionists who had bothered to show up. In their heyday, both unions and mariachis helped define modern Mexico. Now, as they tried to rally each other’s spirits with bursts of song and ricochets of applause, it seemed like the echo of a vivid, but vanishing, past.


1 Comment

  1. *smiles nostalgically and presses play on the ipod, letting her senses fill with songs of her youth*

    Thank you for posting this… Viva Los Mariachis!

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