Exploring the complexity of mariachi music

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It’s been over two years since I first started playing with The University of Texas Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán. We had our first gig of the semester last Friday, September 13 at the Texas Exes Hispanic Alumni Fiesta. Every year, the Hispanic Alumni Fiesta raises money for scholarships while UT alumni get to gather and socialize before game day. We get invited to play at this event year after year, and this time around we got put on a great show. Our crowd seemed to be having a good time listening to our gritos and  singing along to songs like El Rey and Volver Volver.

Having stopped playing with the mariachi for the entire summer almost made me forget how much work and coordination goes into this music. Putting together a mariachi band is not as easy as it seems. Unlike other types of musical ensembles –such as orchestras– mariachis are to memorize the music and be ready to play whatever song the audience asks for at any given time. There is not a director or conductor to lead the tempo or the dynamics. Rather, mariachi performers work together as a group and use the hearing and visual senses to determine the next musical move. This spontaneity is what makes mariachi music so unique and exciting.

Mariachis are typically comprised of violins, trumpets, guitars and other  string instruments such as a vihuela, guitarrón and harp. All of these elements are to be combined to create a harmonious melody that will capture the audience’s attention.

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Sam Quintanilla, violin. © Rebecca Castillo De Avila

The violin is a staple of both modern and past mariachis. Large mariachi bands contain about six to eight violins, whereas smaller mariachis are comprised of about 2 or three violin players. The violins create background and melodic elements. These instruments are often used to develop the total sound of mariachi music, and just like any other kind of violin, they’re blended in with the sound of other instruments.

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Ryan Fritz, trumpet. © Rebecca Castillo De Avila

The trumpets are very important in mariachi music. Their role is to play melodies and accent chords to give the music a spice that no other instrument can bring to it. There are usually two trumpet players that play often harmonically with each other. Trumpet players use the vibrato to produce the wavy sound that is very characteristic of mariachi music.

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Lesly Reynaga, guitar. © Rebecca Castillo De Avila

Almost all mariachi bands have at least one guitar. It’s the same kind of guitar used in classical or folk music. It is played in collaboration with the vihuela, and with the guitarrón, which are described below. The guitar is used to supplement the rhythm of the music.

The vihuela complements the armonía, or string section, in a magnificent way. It is strummed just like a guitar, but it is curved while the guitar has a flat front, and it’s also smaller than a guitar. The vihuela has the capacity to produce a very strong and distinctive sound, which makes it stand out from the rest of the armonía.

A guitarrón is another instrument unique to mariachi music. It forms the bass foundation for the music, and gives it a truly special sound. By all means, the guitarrón is the single most essential element of mariachi music. Without it, the rest of the group would fall apart, for the guitarrón provides the beat that serves almost as a metronome for the entire ensemble.

By far, my favorite instrument in a mariachi, and one that is very hard to find players for, is the harp. The harp has tremendous versatility and often accents chords, plays along with or as a solo in the melody, or creates powerful bass lines. The structure of the harp allows the player to perform bass parts with the left hand, while using the right hand to pluck out melodic lines. The mariachi player has the ability to perform dynamic, powerful bass strikes on what is typically seen as a naturally delicate instrument.

Although different mariachis incorporate other kinds of instruments such as flutes, accordions or organs to create different arrangements, the instruments described above are the most typical and basic instruments utilized in contemporary mariachi music.

With currently 16 members, the UT Mariachi Paredes is a large group made up of students who are passionate about mariachi music. I, and surely the rest of the mariachi, had a wonderful time at the Hispanic Alumni Fiesta and look forward to what the rest of the semester holds!

Did you know there is a Mariachi Guinness World Record? 

In July of this year, the Mexican city of Guadalajara –also known as the mother land of mariachi music– set the Guinness World Record for the largest number of mariachis playing all together, with over 700 performers.