Silence falls as the sombrero-clad musicians take to the stage and in the distance comes the sound of a lone trumpet playing a haunting melody called El Niño Perdido, “the lost child.” Another musician strikes up in response as the mother calls her child. Gradually, the first musician moves closer until the musicians are reunited, at which time all the members of the band join in a rousing and joyous refrain. Meet the mariachis, Mexico’s most famous musicians, now designated UNESCO World Heritage in the intangible culture category. They are the heart of soul of any fiesta, and some of the country’s best-loved cultural ambassadors.
The Mariachi band at Hacienda Sisal
The origin of the mariachi
There are many theories about the origin of the word “mariachi”. Although now refuted, the most popular version for many years was that “mariachi” had its roots in the French word mariage or wedding and that these famous musicians played at weddings during the French occupation of Mexico (1862 – 67). The association of ideas is easy to understand, but the reality is that this theory may have in fact originated as a joke. Today’s linguists and historians suggest that “mariachi” actually comes from the ancient word for the stage or platform upon which dancers and musicians performed during fiestas in the village of Cocula in the state of Jalisco, long before the French set foot in Mexico. In fact, early European visitors to the area reported that the Coca Indian inhabitants of Cocula were talented musicians. During the Colonial period, they adopted musical instruments introduced by the Europeans and began to play in groups, composing songs which often talked about real events and people, and can therefore be identified in historical records. We may never know everything about the origin of the word “mariachi” or the early players, but there is one thing we all agree on: Mariachi is synonymous with fiesta, joy, and above all with a love of Mexico.
You mark the rhythm, and I’ll play the tune…
A typical Mexican Mariachi
A traditional Mexican fiesta just isn’t complete without the music of the mariachis, the songs performed while the audience drinks a toast with a glass of tequila. The musicians make their entrance and as they play the first rousing bars, the party erupts in an outpouring of passion and happiness; some people shout “Viva Mexico”, others do the traditional zapateado or tap dance to the fast rhythm of the guitarrones while the remaining partygoers sing, dance or simply enjoy the celebration. Famous melodies such as La Negra, Las Olas or La Culebra are fiesta favorites and the audience joins the mariachis in song, although these strolling showmen often change the lyrics making them funny or even suggestive.
The original mariachi ensemble was comprised of two violins, a guitar, and the guitarrón and vihuela, two other guitar-like instruments. The trumpet was added later and nowadays mariachi groups without trumpet players are almost impossible to find. Practically all mariachi instruments are made from the wood of the guásima, a tree native to Jalisco. Harps are made from cedar, and the guitarrón is 100 percent Mexican and played only by mariachis. You’ll have no difficulty picking it out – it is the stoutest of the instruments, a characteristic often shared by the man who plays it!
It’s not a question of arriving first; making an entrance is what counts…
The first Cocula mariachis traveled to Mexico City in 1905 to take part in the Mexican Independence festivities, which also conveniently coincided with the birthday of President Porfirio Diaz. In those days, the musicians looked nothing like they do today; they wore the white cotton shirts and trousers and straw hats traditionally worn by Mexican peasant farmers, and not even the more formal garb of the charros or cowboys. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that mariachis spread throughout Mexico and acquired the look we know today. They owe their fame to the Golden Age of Mexican film and movies starring national idols such as Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. These two actors played the classic Mexican charro: a man who is a loyal, good friend and a gifted singer; and they made their screen appearance in the elegant sombreros and clothing worn by these horsemen on festive occasions. These ornate suits are now and forever associated with mariachis, the very special musicians who have become a symbol of Mexican pride.
Pedro Infante & Jorge Negrete, Mexican legends
From Cocula, mariachis spread throughout the country…
And have conquered the world! Nowhere is their immense popularity more evident than in the International Gathering of Mariachis, which takes place every year in the Teatro Degollado, a beautiful theater in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. Inaugurated in 1994, the event has been growing ever since and now attracts performers from all over Mexico and abroad. Apart from the world’s best mariachi ensembles such as the Mariachi Vargas of America, musicians from Italy, Chile, Australia, Canada and the United States have also taken part.
Mariachi Vargas in concert
Mariachis, tequila and tears…
We cannot finish our tale of mariachis without mentioning legendary cantinas or bars such as El Tenampa and El Rincon del Mariachi in Plaza Garibaldi, a famous square in the historic heart of Mexico City, which is now the site of a new museum dedicated to Tequila and Mescal. More than 50 years ago, mariachi musicians and singers based in Plaza Garibaldi began offering their services for parties, serenades and other events, and there are now 3,000 of them working in the area.
Plaza Garibaldi, Mexico
The busiest times of year for mariachis are the days when the entire country is celebrating something, such as Mother’s Day when families hire them to serenade Mom. On this day in restaurants all over Mexico, women sit at the head of a table clutching bouquets and shedding tears of happiness as they listen to mariachis playing their favorite song. Another festive occasion is November 22, Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of musicians. A statue of the saint is carried from Santa Maria la Redonda, a church overlooking Plaza Garibaldi, to the Basilica de Guadalupe for a special mass. Even more important is December 12, when mariachis accompany hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to serenade the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Basilica in a celebration that kicks off the day before in the early hours of the morning and draws to a close late the day after. And of course, Mexican Independence in September when songs such as Son de la Negra and el Jarabe Tapatio echo throughout the country.
Mariachis in Plaza Garibaldi
Mariachis also have an interesting role in daily life as the messengers of love. Young men still hire them to serenade their fiancées or to win over girls who have caught their eye; while the mariachis perform romantic songs in the street outside the girl’s house, the suitor hides in the shadows gazing up at his beloved’s window. Those unlucky in love seek solace in the cantina, drowning their sorrows in a bottle of tequila and listening to a mariachi patiently play Ella, a classic song about unrequited love and the fickleness of women, by the famous Mexican singer songwriter José Alfredo Jimenez. And when it’s your birthday, the mariachis can always be counted on to strike up another Jimenez song guaranteed to make you feel like a king, El Rey.
Jose Alfredo Jimenez, "El Rey"
Mariachis perform traditional melodies from all over the country, classic ballads and today’s hits, and they can be found everywhere, at weddings, serenades, national fiestas, and churches, on the street and even in graveyards. Mexicans often say, “When I die, I don’t want sad music, bring on the mariachis to play at my funeral.” In casting out the melancholy, they embrace the vibrant and joyful sound of Mexico’s master musicians.
If you are staying at Royal Resorts in Cancun you can see the Mariachis perform as part of the popular Dinner Shows staged twice a week at Hacienda Sisal restaurant next to The Royal Sands. Don’t miss them and check out our list of Mariachi Favorites.
Mariachi outside Hacienda Sisal
Another excellent place to see mariachis is Xcaret, where they perform in the incredible, colorful and moving evening show called Xcaret de Noche. If you haven’t been to Xcaret yet, Thomas More Travel can help you book your trip to the Riviera Maya’s famous park.
Mariachi band at "Xcaret de Noche" show
50 Mariachi Favorites
We did a poll among Royal Resorts staff and came up with the following Mariachi Playlist, songs are not listed in order of preference and the name of the composer is given. If you ever decide to hire these strolling musicians for a tableside serenade, here are some of our favorites for starters, but ask any of your Mexican friends and they’ll come up with many more!
Why not drop us a line and tell us your favorite Mariachi tune?
• El niño perdido (Luis Pérez Meza)
• Las golondrinas (Zamacois-Serradel)
• Cielito lindo (Elpidio Rámirez)
• Mexico lindo y querido (Jesus “Chucho” Monge)
• Guadalajara (José Guizar Morfín)
• La Malaguéña (Elpidio Rámirez)
• El Sinaloense (Severiano Briseño)
• El son de la negra (Silvestre Vargas & Ruben Fuentes)
• Paloma negra (Tomás Méndez)
• Cucurrucucú paloma (Tomás Méndez)
• Caminos de Michoacán (Bulmaro Bermúdez)
• La bikina (Rúben Fuentes)
• Qué bonito es mi tierra (Rúben Fuentes)
• La Bamba (traditional)
• Granada (Agústin Lara)
• El Rey (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Ella (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Si nos dejan (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Media vuelta (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Caminos de Guanajuato (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El siete mares (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Cuando los años pasen (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Deja que salga la luna (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El último trago (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Me equivoqué contigo (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Paloma querida (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Que se me acabe la vida (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Que te vaya bonito (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Serenata huasteca (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* Un mundo raro (José Alfredo Jimenez)
* El jinete (José Alfredo Jimenez)
• Cielo rojo (Juan Záizar)
• Cruz de olvido ((Juan Záizar)
• Maldito corazón (Chucho Navarro)
• Pobre corazón (Chucho Monge)
• El Pastor (traditional Huapango melody)
• Mujeres divinas (Martin Urieta)
• El mariachi loco (Román Palomar Arreola)
• Sabes una cosa (Rúben Fuentes)
* Serenata tapatía (Manuel Esperón)
* Ay Jalisco no te rajes (Manuel Esperón)
* Amorcito corazón ((Manuel Esperón)
* Cocula (Manuel Esperón)
* Esos Altos de Jalisco (Manuel Esperón)
* El topetón (Manuel Esperón)
* El charro mexicano (Manuel Esperón)
* Hasta que perdió Jalisco (Manuel Esperón)
* Tequila con limón (Manuel Esperón)
* Me he de comer esa tuna (Manuel Esperón)
• Noche plateada (Manuel Esperón)