The Power of Mariachi: thoughts on neglected roots music
Much has been written of the ability of music to move, enlighten and alter consciousness. Writers and musicians alike have expounded on the heart of the blues, the passion of opera, the righteousness of folk or the realness of hip-hop. But, in all my years of devouring music literature from the scientific to the philosophical to the purely pulp, I have never seen addressed ‘The Power of Mariachi’.
Laugh if you will, I do even as I write the words, but dear reader I have never been more serious. Tight silver-studded pants, elephantine guitars and Cucarachas aside, Mariachi is a proud, beautiful and often neglected genre with an ability like no other to change your state of mind.
How Mariachi moved from 18th century Jalisco Mexican ranch hands and street buskers to the near caricatures we see in movies, serenading woman below their window, is a long story for another time. But these days, outside of Mexico or perhaps Southern California, opportunities to encounter live Mariachi music are slim.
There is something about the unexpected nature of Mariachi that adds to it’s power, the visceral punch and fast vibrato of the horns, the gentle staccato rhythm of the guitars and violins and the passionate tales of love that run so prevalently through the folk music of all cultures from the lute accompanied laments of John Dowland to Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring it On Home’.
Recently my wife and I and our three-year-old son decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner out, after a long and somewhat emotionally trying day. There are two great authentic Mexican restaurants nearby and because of the draining nature of our afternoon we went to the closest. Our meals were just arriving when an unexpected trumpet blast came from the back of the restaurant. A full 4-piece Mariachi band appeared moments later and as they made their rounds to each table for a few songs, we found ourselves completely unable to maintain our previous level of unpleasantness. Alas. By the time they reached us we were smiling and laughing, our three year old, swaying back and fourth to the music, occasionally closing his eyes and humming along at a particularly heart-wrenching moment. When they asked for any requests, I ashamedly admitted to not knowing any and simply asked them to play their favorite. We sat in awe as they swapped instruments several times, playing each with the same level of mastery. Several of them also sang and harmonized beautifully. They played for several hours, never repeating a song, never resorting to sheet music or leads sheets, barely even counting off. They were in sync, simply and utterly.
We left the restaurant feeling refreshed, renewed and inspired but most of all happy.
I realized that this is what music is about, expressing yourself and changing your circumstance or at least the way you feel about it. There are several bands out their incorporating elements of Mariachi into their music including the much acclaimed Calexico or more literally the LA based Mariachi El Bronx (formerly hardcore punk band ‘The Bronx’). The later was recently featured in SPIN magazine doing a cover of the 1984 Prince classic “I Would Die 4 U”, which translates surprisingly well with it’s enigmatic yarn of love and sacrifice.
However, it is traditional Mariachi that is long overdue for recognition of it’s cultural significance. It is ripe and ready for a good PBS documentary. Ken Burns and Martin Scorsese, where are you? Sometimes the most powerful music can come from the most unexpected places when you remember to…
Live Well and Listen Closely,
check out Calexico and Mariachi El Bronx’s cover of “I Would Die 4 U”:
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
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