The Origin of Mariachi
The word “mariachi” is a term that can be used to describe the individual musician, the ensemble, or the musical genre itself. A definitive origin has never been established. Perhaps the most common misconception is that the term is derived from the French word for “marriage”—mariage—the theory being that these unnamed ensembles were often hired by the French court in Mexico during the French occupation (1861-67) to play at fiestas and weddings. Presumably, Mexicans began calling these groups of strolling musicians “mariachi.” Today there are many facts to support the idea that the term predates the French occupation. Many Mexican scholars argue that groups called “mariachi” were already in existence by 1830.
Scholarly investigations also support the possibility of indigenous roots. Evidence substantiates the existence of an Indian “mariachi” that used a single-head skin drum. One investigation suggests the term derives from the Yutonahuatl language group, signifying a hard floor or dance area called a miriache. Another hypothesis suggest the term comes from celebrations honoring the virgin known as “Maria H” or “Maria Hache” that evolved into the word “mariachi.”
The Instruments of Mariachi
The original mariachi came from rural Western Mexico, primarily the states of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Sinaloa. The first groups were string-based ensembles, making the term mariachi “band” inappropriate as bands, by definition, emphasize brass and woodwinds. The first mariachi instrumentation consisted primarily of violins and the diatonic harp, a non-pedal and therefore non-chromatic instrument. The harp provided rhythmic and harmonic support while the violins played the melodic lines.
As the mariachi ensemble developed, a small, generally five-stringed flat-back guitar, called a quinta or guitarra de golpe was added to support the rhythm. In the area around Cocula, for reasons not completely understood, a rounded-back set of instruments was used instead. The five-stringed vihuela, a rounded-back instrument, along with the more recent addition of the guitar, provides the underlying rhythm essential for the musical sound of every mariachi ensemble.
The guitarron, a larger rounded-back instrument, plays the bass line. The original guitarron used four or five gut strings; eventually the instrument became standardized with six nylon strings, giving it sufficient volume to support the bass. Because it is capable of modulating to different keys (and easier to carry), the guitarron eventually replaced the harp in most ensembles.
In the early 1930s, when the ensembles began to think in terms of arrangements and commercial possibilities, a trumpet was added, to create a better, more penetrating sound for radio broadcasts. In later years, two trumpets became a standard part of mariachi ensembles, although it is not uncommon to find three or more in some of today’s groups. Mariachi Sol de México utilizes three trumpets.