Friday, August 17

Global Melodies: Music of Mexico Ensemble preserves, revamps mariachi music


Mariachi de Uclatlán at UCLA practices the various styles of mariachi music, such as son jalisciense and huapango. The ensemble features both more traditionally Western instruments, such as the harp, violin and trumpets, and Mexican instruments such as the guitarón and vihuela. (Ken Shin/Daily Bruin)

Mariachi de Uclatlán at UCLA practices the various styles of mariachi music, such as son jalisciense and huapango. The ensemble features both more traditionally Western instruments, such as the harp, violin and trumpets, and Mexican instruments such as the guitarón and vihuela. (Ken Shin/Daily Bruin)


Some musicians may frown upon heckling, but mariachi performers often encourage supportive yelling, or grito, during their concerts.

Grito can often be heard at performances by Mariachi de Uclatlán, a performance branch of UCLA’s Music of Mexico Ensemble. Directed by Grammy award-winning lecturer Jesús Guzmán, the Music of Mexico Ensemble practices traditional mariachi music in a variety of styles, such as son jalisciense from the state of Jalisco, and son jarocho from Veracruz. Guzmán said he began teaching in the ensemble in an effort to preserve the tradition for future generations.

“Mariachi music, for me, is heart, is passion, is life, is art,” Guzmán said. “In Mexico, mariachi is … our flag.”

Composed of 40 students, the Music of Mexico Ensemble offers both a beginner and an advanced section, each of which acts as a training ground for Mariachi de Uclatlán, said Pauline Arriaga, a graduate astrophysics student. A graduate student founded the Music of Mexico Ensemble in the 1960s, and the group continues to play the same traditional mariachi music today, she said.

Mariachi de Uclatlán uses a number of traditionally Western instruments, such as violin, trumpet and guitar, as well as Mexican instruments with Western influence like the guitarrón and vihuela, she said. Both instruments resemble a guitar and have a rounded back to better project the notes, but a guitarrón is larger than a traditional guitar, while a vihuela is smaller and has only five strings.

Mariachi has a long history in the United States as well, particularly within Los Angeles, where well-known locations such as Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights have acted as hubs for the genre, said Julio Rodriguez, a UCLA alumnus who plays the harp in Mariachi de Uclatlán. Before the process of hiring mariachi groups moved online, the plaza was an area where people could find, vet and hire talented mariachi groups for events, he said.

“I don’t know the numbers … but I would not be surprised if Los Angeles was the biggest concentration of mariachis outside of Mexico,” Rodriguez said.

As a musician for the ensemble, Rodriguez said the technique required to play harp in a mariachi group differs greatly from the skills needed in a classical ensemble. The tension in the strings of the harp is much higher in mariachi music, which allows Rodriguez to take on fast solos and play with his fingernails, a technique he said is rare in the classical realm.

Rodriguez said the different styles of mariachi music show off different parts of the ensemble – for example, son jarocho often features flashy harp solos in the middle of the songs, while huapango requires the singer to alternate between falsetto and chest voices. Son jalisciense is meant to sound aggressive and passionate, while bolero should sound delicate and romantic. The contrasting styles mean musicians have to use their instruments very differently.

After playing in her high school’s mariachi ensemble, Arriaga decided to join Mariachi de Uclatlán, and now acts as an administrator for the ensemble as well as a performer for the mariachi group. Arriaga said her love for mariachi comes from its connection to the heart of Mexican culture and the traditions that surround the musical style, such as the Mexican grito.

“If you go anywhere in Los Angeles or in Mexico and you play mariachi music, you’ll find people singing along, you’ll find people really interacting with the group,” Arriaga said.

Until recently, mariachi groups did not traditionally include women members, Arriaga said. Elisa Quinonez, a third-year history student, said all-women mariachis were not popularized until around the 1990s. Today, women make up about half of Mariachi de Uclatlán, which Quinonez said has greatly benefited the group, as it gives them more options for harmonies and stage performances.

Although mariachi has a rich history, Arriaga said not everyone understands what defines the genre – many people think of stereotypical songs such as “La Cucaracha” or “La Bamba.” Members of Mariachi de Uclatlán intends to alter people’s expectations of their music through its performances. Quinonez said Mariachi de Uclatlán may have a lot of fun when performing, but the group still understands its role in celebrating Mexican culture.

“Mariachi is not just reading music and memorizing music, it’s really getting involved with the culture,” Quinonez said. “It’s so embedded in Mexican and Mexican-American culture that there’s really no separating the impact that it has (from) the music.”

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