How Mariachi Got Its Name
By Bill Dean
Mariachi music is not to be confused with Gregorian chants. Pope Gregory would not have confused the two (even though he is credited with inventing the chants) because mariachi music was unheard of in the 7th century. But some 1000 years later in Mexico – 1852, to be more precise – Father Cosme Santa Anna made the distinction, and he made it with a vengeance. That was the year he wrote a letter to his bishop complaining about the noisy band playing across from his church in Rosamorado, Nayarit, a city not too far from Guadalajara. He ordered the band to stop the irreverent music and, to make sure they did stop, he hijacked their instruments. His priestly garb must have done the trick because the rest of that evening was quiet and peaceful in Rosamorado.
Aside from this extraordinary act of bravery, his letter to the bishop is significant because, before then, no one had figured out where the word mariachi came from. It used to be thought that the word was a corruption of the French word for marriage and that it came into use in Mexico during the brief reign of Emperor Maximilian (1864-1867). History buffs can thank Father Cosme for setting the historical record straight. His letter complaining to the bishop contains the word mariachi marking its first appearance (in print) on record. The letter was dated more than a decade before France ever thought of invading Mexico. So much for the French connection.
Let’s just leave it that nobody knows where the word came from, and probably few people care. What people do care about is the music. In November of 2011, UNESCO put mariachi music on its list of important cultural traditions. Today there are mariachi schools, mariachi classes, and mariachi degrees in many countries, including the United States, Japan, and Columbia. With that kind of following, it’s hard to understand what the pious Padre Cosme was complaining about. Maybe he was just a grouch.
Mariachi music is string, brass, and powerful voices. The lyrics tell of lost loves, rebellions, death, and national pride. The classic, at least in Guadalajara, is the city’s anthem by that name. The expressions on the musicians’ faces tell more than the lyrics.
There is not much to suggest that mariachi music had roots tied to Indian music. Indian music was rhythmic, repetitious, and had a tight melodic range. The Indians made their music from drums, gourds, turtle shells, and flutes. The rhythm section tried very hard not to miss a beat as doing so could offend the gods, for which the punishment was death.
The Spanish newcomers didn’t like Indian music. They were accustomed to solemn church music, elegies to mourn deaths, and celebratory music to stir the King’s subjects. They also didn’t like the sensual movements of natives who danced to it. The Colonists’ biggest problem with Indian music, however, was the fear that Indian music would return the Indians to their pagan gods. So they outlawed it.
Nevertheless, the clergy soon realized that the singing of mass could attract the Indians to Christianity. The first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, believed that Indians were converted to Christianity more by music than by anything else. People who may be offended by bawdy mariachi music – like Father Cosme was – and people who may be horrified by lewd body movements made to the clinking of turtle shells – like the friars were – can take comfort in knowing that Mexico has many other songs and dances, such as are the performances of the internationally acclaimed Ballet Folklórico.