By Gil Sperry, author of Mariachi for Gringos
It all started with the Coca Indians in the early 1500s in what is today the Mexican state of Jalisco. The primitive instruments they had created…rattles, drums, reeds, flutes, conch shell horns…produced five tones. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish (with their “treasure” of the European twelve tone system and some very interesting new instruments), it would probably be accurate to say that the Coca people were a rhythm section in search of melody lines.
Hernán Cortés brought with him Franciscan friars who utilized their sophisticated music as a tool to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. It was necessary for them to learn the Spanish language so they could read the music, understand the lyrics, and become proficient on the new instruments.
Those originally included the harp, the vihuela (a convex backed lute) and the guitar. The mixture of the old and the new …instruments, music and lyrics… led the locals to describe their tribal members who were involved in this innovative pursuit as “mariachi” (Coca for “musical group”). This is the first use of the word that can be historically verified.
How was the word “mariachi” created? The word was formed from three distinct parts: “mari,” “ia,” and “chi.” “Mari” originally was the Coca word for “deer,” as well as a synonym for the deer’s ability “to run fast.” “Ia” meant “the sound,” while “chi” meant “what.” “What sounds like a deer running fast” was how the Coca described their ability to play music at an extreme up-tempo: “deer like” velocity.
A third melodic and rhythmic stream was introduced into the blend when African slaves were brought to Mexico in the 17th century. By the 19th century, the dominant form of Mexican folk music that had evolved, based primarily in an area west of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, was Mariachi, which that time featured the predominant use of the stringed instruments.
It is the consensus of most historians that the original music was dance oriented. The evolution into a performance-based medium was gradual.The introduction of kaleidoscopic elements like vocal harmonics and wind instrumentation broadened mariachi’s appeal for those who wanted to watch or listen to virtuoso talents in action.
By the 20th century, the unique sound of Mariachi was being described as “…a musical serape of many widely contrasting bands of aural colors appearing side-by-side.” Smooth-as-silk violins, vibrant trumpets, the bass heartbeat of the guitarron, the resonant high-pitched vihuela combined with the complimentary Spanish guitar and harp, all blending with harmonizing vocals telling provocative stories. The combination was irresistible.
As Mariachi continued throughout the centuries, the demands on the size, instrumentation, appearance, sound, and repertoire grew – the need for an innovator to take the music to the next level was readily apparent. And, as so often happens, forces had already been set into motion that would create the correct environment for the innovator to emerge… Mariachi with full symphony orchestra.
To learn more of the rich history of Mariachi we recommend you read Mariachi for Gringos by Gil Sperry.