The word "mariachi" originated in the language of the Coca Indians as early as the 1500's. It meant simply "musician" and was used to mean any person that engaged in musical activities...

The instruments of a modern mariachi group will include violins, trumpets, a vihuela, a guitarrón and one or more guitars. Many groups use other unconventional instruments such as flute or accordion, but these are not accepted as mariachi standard. The harp and the guitarra de golpe, a guitar variant, are sometimes used and are considered proper mariachi instruments. Both of these were part of the colonial and cuarteto mariachi groups of the 1800's and early part of this century. The guitarrón and vihuela give the ensemble a very distinct sound. Theses two instruments are not found in any other kind of ensemble.

The guitarrón is a large bass guitar-like instrument with a large belly in the back. It has six strings tuned within an octave and a half range. This is the heartbeat of the mariachi ensemble. The vihuela is a small guitar variant also with a belly and five treble strings.

The attire of a mariachi group also defines this type of band. Mariachi musicians adapted the "charro" (Mexican Cowboy) suit as the standard costume when performing. Although many variations have been tried, it has remained the required dress. The "traje" consists of botines or ankles boots, a sombrero, a mono or large bow tie, a chaleco or short jacket, snug trousers without back pockets, a wide belt and botonaduras or shiny buttons on the side of the pants...

Mariachi groups have an almost universal repertoire. Nearly every group is expected to know certain material that is native to the genre. These include songs such as Cielito Lindo, Jalisco, El Son de la Negra and El Rey. The definitive song form is the son. The son in indigenous to mariachi music and has several notable characteristics. The rhythmic pattern is an alteration between 3/4 and 6/8 with heavy syncopation. Trumpets and violins make extensive use a grace notes, and the lyrics are usually humorous or nonsensical.

-- Rene Benavidez, International Folk Culture Center

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