True mariachi is a serious music genre that deserves much more than an annual flirt on Cinco de Mayo. Everything about mariachi performances, from the instruments and lyrics to the festive attire, is purposefully designed to evoke strong emotions and help us celebrate life’s most significant moments, from birth and death to expressions of love and personal milestones. In November 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) elevated mariachi music by officially declaring it an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in need of preservation.
Mariachi’s origins are firmly rooted in Mexican history, emerging in the 1800s from the ranches and small towns of western Mexico. Over the years, the characteristics, instruments, and dress of mariachi evolved to what is known today as traditional mariachi, with a standard full ensemble consisting of two trumpets, up to six violins, a high-pitched vihuela, a nylon string guitar, and a large bass guitarron. Early mariachi performers dressed in peasant garb, usually white shirts and pants and leather sandals, but since the 20th century, the hallmark of mariachi is the traditional traje de charro, or cowboy attire, with matching close-fitting uniforms of embellished trousers (or skirts), short jackets, bow ties, boots, and charro sombreros.
Why is mariachi so loved in the United States? We looked to Dr. Daniel Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at the Smithsonian Institution, who also happens to be cofounder, director, and musical member of local mariachi group Mariachi Los Amigos. Sheehy also wrote a definitive book on the subject: Mariachi Music in America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture.
Sheehy says he became involved with mariachi in California after being invited to join a group at UCLA in 1968. Later moving to Bailey’s Crossroads in Virginia, he cofounded Mariachi Los Amigos in 1978 and has been performing at public and private events in the Washington, DC, area ever since.
“Right now there are probably only four organized mariachi groups with a history of practicing together that are functioning locally. Our group was the only one that rehearsed regularly for decades,” says Sheehy. “There are lots of musicians who play mariachi music in this network, and everyone knows each other, so musicians often call on friends from other groups or communities to play as needed.”
Besides the usual concerts, festivals, weddings, funerals, birthdays, quinceaneras, and other special events, Mariachi Los Amigos has been tapped for some unusually impressive gigs, including shows at the Kennedy Center and presidential state dinners and inaugurations.
“We played when President Clinton was in office and Mexican President Zedillo came up for a state dinner,” says Sheehy. “Afterwards the two presidents were kind enough to send us to the Blue Room, where they both came in and greeted us with their spouses.” Mariachi Los Amigos was later called to play for a White House Cinco de Mayo celebration for then Vice President Joe Biden. Sheehy also recalls playing for former Mexico Ambassador to the United States Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez at a dinner in the ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC.
In 2018, Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez hired Mariachi Los Amigos to serenade the baseball players in the clubhouse on Cinco de Mayo. “That was a lot of fun, and one of the most memorable experiences of my musical career, to tell you the truth,” says Sheehy. “It was great, just us and the players in the clubhouse, and they were so gracious. They gave us all red Nationals shirts, which we wore with our buttoned uniform pants while performing.”
The distinctive mariachi attire is a nod to Mexican horseman traditions. “Real cowboy outfits were tailored with buttons to close up chaps around the pants, to protect the legs from getting scratched while riding through the brush,” Sheehy explains. A series of movies starting in 1936 glamorized western cowboy and mariachi culture. “The suits evolved with the film industry over time,” says Sheehy. “There were at least 400 films produced over the golden age of cinema that featured mariachi music, and the whole outfit package, with the elaboration of the charro gear, hats, and suit buttons started to shift from practical function to purely style.”
Mariachi is spreading fast, not just across the United States, but all around the world, says Sheehy, noting that mariachi saw a huge jump in popularity in the U.S. in 1987 when Linda Ronstadt released her album, Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father). “Another big factor is the mariachi-in-education movement,” notes Sheehy. “Now there are hundreds of middle and high schools in United States, mostly out West, with mariachi programs.”
Today there are about 15 annual mariachi conferences throughout the United States, offering not only concert performances but competitions and teaching opportunities. “Mariachi has been male-dominated forever, but the education programs are changing that, and now there are more female players,” says Sheehy.
After a quiet spell during the COVID pandemic, Mariachi Los Amigos is seeing an uptick in bookings. “People are excited about having parties again, and we’re so busy we’ve had to turn some people down,” says Sheehy. “Mariachi is really an easy thing to do at a party. It’s great – you don’t have to plug in. You just show up, have fun, and then you leave. It really is the perfect party music.” Interested in a booking? Contact Mariachi Los Amigos on their Facebook page.
Interested in the music, but not feeling a personal show? Northern Virginians are in for a treat on Friday, August 12, 2022, when Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, comes to Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia, for its 125th Anniversary Tour. Founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas in Tecalitlan, Jalisco, in Mexico, the highly acclaimed group is considered the gold standard in mariachi music. The undisputed title of The Greatest Mariachi in the World is one passed down through five previous generations of musicians. The group tours year-round throughout the world. Tickets for 8 p.m. show are on sale now, starting at $61.50.
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