Music, culture define the name 'mariachi'
By Mike Hazelwood
Historians have long argued the definition of the word "mariachi."
Some say it's derived from a French word referring to marriage or a wedding. Others say the name has roots in native Mexico and is derived from a kind of wood used in platforms for musicians and dancers.
But ultimately, the music itself defines the word.
"It reflects the Mexican culture," says Juan Morales of Porterville, a widely respected professional mariachi composer and performer involved with several local youth groups.
While a majority of songs center on love, topics come from all slices of life -- love, hate, anger, patriotism, nature, work, play and everything else under the sun.
Thus, mariachi is a fixture at all types of gatherings -- birthdays, weddings, funerals and everything in between.
The instrumentation of the typical mariachi group contributes to its identifiable sound, which can be equally festive and heart wrenching.
Some instruments are specific to mariachi music, such as the vihuela, a small guitar with a bright, prickly sound, and the guitarrón, a bass guitar with a warm, deep sound.
Other instruments are common to all types of music, including violins, trumpets and harps.
But mariachi music, which was born in Mexico during the 1800s, has changed since growing in the United States in the last 50 years.
"Mariachi continues to evolve," Javier Rodriguez says.
Many traditional mariachi songs were blatantly sexist and all the performers were men. You could write tons of songs with the theme: "I'm a womanizer who can out-drink anyone, and I'll ride off on my trusty horse, which is the fastest ever."
But in the United States today, all-female mariachi groups are spreading, and the sexist lyrics are disappearing. In Tulare County youth groups, the membership is about half boys and half girls, directors say. Porterville's Mariachi Academy has organized an all-female group.
"That's a big change," says Lali Moheno, a Tulare County supervisor who has grown up as a mariachi fan. "Traditionally women just weren't around mariachi," Moheno says.
Another change has come in the way mariachi is learned.
"Traditionally mariachi was handed down from generation to generation in each family," Rodriguez says. There was no sheet music to speak of since most performers couldn't read it.
But over the last half-century, legends such as Nati Cano and his group, Los Camperos -- which will perform with a group of Tulare County students in September -- changed things.
The best mariachi performers are classically trained at the university level, especially the composers and arrangers. The music they play has also dipped outside the mariachi realm, adding twists of classical and popular genres.
Morales, who taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and performed for years with Los Camperos, is credited with spreading formal mariachi instruction in the Valley.
In Texas and Arizona, as well as the San Diego area, mariachi is well established in the school systems. That has led to an increase in non-Latino performers.
Rodriguez, whose group Mariachi Juvenil Alma de Mexico competes around the United States, has seen a global interest in mariachi. International competitions have featured mariachi groups from Germany, Croatia, Italy and other non-Spanish speaking nations. Many groups are even government funded.
When Rodriguez heard a version of the mariachi classic "Volver, volver" sung in Japanese, he realized the music had grown to a broad new level.
"The music transcends language," Rodriguez says.
Originally published Saturday, July 19, 2003