Trumpets breathed life into mariachi music

Fiesta by the hour

Plaza de Los Marichis is a small fork in the road at Avenida Articulo 123 and Commercio in Tijuana. It is walking distance from Revolucíon and the border. Busy streets run in a Y around the small outdoor plaza, whose entrance is marked by twin Spanish fountains. This Friday night is humid with people hurrying by to attend local political rallies for governor. Police are busy trying to manage the growing crowds from impeding traffic. Plastic banners of Mexico’s major parties, PAN and PRI, are everywhere — street corners, telephone poles. Even the popular bronze monuments in the centers of the roundabouts are covered with white plastic banners hanging on strings.

Nearing the plaza, you can hear the sizzling from the grill and catch the familiar smell of spiced beef cooking. Waiting just back from the street, under a series of worn brick arches, are groups of mariachis dressed in traditional charro suits, many of them elaborate and distinctive. Some are dressed in black, with double rows of large, eye-catching silver buttons that run up the outsides of the legs. Between the rows of buttons is a cord that draws the pants’ legs together. Some of the musicians wear white jackets, and vests, with baroque designs embroidered on the lapels, back, and cuffs. There are even red-suited mariachis with white Stetsons and long white fringe running across the backs of their jackets. This evening about 20 bands are waiting here. Many are in full dress and have their instruments, ready to be hired.

On the corner of Avenida Articulo 123, traffic moves by slowly. Some musicians are doing what could be called band promotion. When the streetlight changes to red, they walk out into the stopped traffic and hand out business cards. I take a business card from one of them; it has a polished finish, with a poncho for the band’s logo.

I ask a few questions of an older musician with a weathered face — price per hour? How many members in your band? Sensing I am not really there to hire a band, he grows suspicious. I tell him I just want to know more about mariachis. He relaxes some and explains that they are reluctant to discuss the business, because most of them do not claim their earnings from playing and singing. They are leery of the tax board. But he does say that a group of 10 mariachis will cost about $200 an hour.

I ask about his suit. “It is from Jalisco, a traditional cowboy costume. Different bands wear different outfits to distinguish themselves from one another.”

Is this what he does for a living? He says, “No, most of these guys have other jobs during the day. They just do this on weekends and evenings for extra cash.”Apparently, while waiting for the next job, they pass the time here, on the street near the plaza, talking, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and rehearsing.

About the history of mariachi musicians, he tells me the word mariachi is actually French, from mariage, “wedding.” It comes from the strolling minstrels who came with King Maximillian,when the French monarchy placed him as puppet ruler of Mexico. Maximillian was assassinated, but the mariachis were popular among the townsfolk and later became a deep part of what is now Mexican culture.

He goes on to say,“Now we play for a variety of occasions — weddings, baptisms, and quinceañeras are the most popular occasions.” A quinceañera is the equivalent of an American coming-out party. It is given in a young woman’s honor when she is recognized by the community as a woman, usually at age 15. “There are also the well-known serenades given to ladies by their lovers from under their windows at night or in the morning.”He explains that “there are fast, hard-driving cowboy songs called corridas that are often played to awaken hung-over friends.

“The key word in describing mariachis is ‘versatile.’They are able to play according to the desires of the client or customer,” he says.They can sing sweet Mother’s Day ballads or a lullaby for your sister. Then they can sing traditional folk songs that describe a murder or a tragic tale. They sing of love, love lost, love found, of love rejected, and love betrayed. They can play a repertoire of traditional songs such as “La Malagueña” or “La Negra.” According to this musician,the best place to go in Tijuana to hear mariachi music is La Vuelta on Blvd.Agua Caliente, at the corner of Calle Ellias.

I ask him to tell me something most people don’t know about mariachis. He pauses, grins, and says,“Silvester Vargas was the man credited with introducing trumpets to mariachi music. By doing this, he breathed a new life and power into it. Before this, mariachi bands had been mostly strings, guitars, violins, sometimes harps, but no horns. Vargas is credited with being the greatest mariachi musician,and his band still plays under his name today.” He continues,“The last international mariachi convention was held in Guadalajara last year. Thousands of mariachis attended from all over the world for a convention that lasted a week.”

From across the street, I watch a street vendor pack up his tiny stand of tamarind candies, saladitos (salted dried plums), chile peanuts, and soft drinks into a small cart with wooden wheels. I leave the mariachi to his evening’s work and tip him for his time. I think to myself as I leave for the border how great it would be if San Diego had a place where musicians could hang out and be rented by the hour.

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