Like any other country or region of the world, the traditional music of Mexico is infinitely nuanced and rich. In fact, the vibrant traditional Mexican music, with its musicians and dancers that make you get up and tap your feet and clap your hands, is just as much a part of Mexican culture as the tequila, the cockfights, the bullfights, and the sombrero!
The long list of brilliant Mexican singers and songwriters starts from Agustín Lara, Vicente Fernández, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and José Alfredo Jiménez. Not all their music may be traditional, but their style surely is.
Traditional Mexican Music Styles
The Mariachi Style
Among all the traditional styles of music in Mexico, the mariachi is the one that is the most representative of Mexican culture. It typifies how the world identifies Mexico in terms of its music, folklore and culture. Like all traditional music around the world, the mariachi has not been invented by a single person, but instead is a blend of religion, culture and music. It is an intermingling of the indigenous culture with that of the Iberian folk and other black slaves that followed them.
The name 'mariachi' itself is a bit debatable. One theory states that it is a derivative of the French word for 'marriage'. Another theory says the word comes from a type of wood the ancestors used to build a stage for performances.
Although the style and cultural importance of mariachi predates the arrival of Cortés, the Spanish infusion did define a large part of how we see the musical style today. The instruments used changed from drums, rattles and flutes, to guitars, horns, harps and better woodwind instruments. But the Spanish style of music wasn't adopted directly with the instruments.
The Mexicans developed their own music, using that style that they used to play with, and transposed it on the new instruments. This created the essence of mariachi - the contrast of sounds. It is one of the few musical styles that explores sound texture, pitch genders and range, and gives them all equal emphasis.
Usually comprising 3-5 musicians, the orchestra of the mariachis is made up of guitars, violins, and trumpets along with the traditional instruments, guitarron and the vihuela. The elaborate clothing is symbolic of mariachi's past, when it used to be played by the working class, who wore the big straw sombreros to escape the Sun while working.
Although mariachi has been in Mexican culture for a long time, it saw a huge resurgence through Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and its member Rubén Fuentes, since 1944.
Literally meaning 'Ranch Music', Ranchera is the simpler form of Mexican music. It started out during the Mexican Revolution and has been famous ever since. The style uses a dominant vocal, backed by an acoustic guitar and horns every once in a while. The themes revolve around love and loneliness, and are usually keyed in happier sounding major scales. The music is rhythmic in nature and is generally done in the waltz, polka or bolero styles. The beat changes accordingly. Check out "La Derrota" by Joan Sebastian and "Ay! Jalisco No Te Rajes" by Jorge Negrete.
The costumes of the Ranchera comprise the cowboy attire worn by Mexican horsemen - a jacket, gun holsters, tight breech boots, and of course the ubiquitous sombrero.
Being the Spanish word for 'band', this style of traditional Mexican music comprises large groups of musicians that play chiefly brass instruments along with little or no percussion. Stringed music is not used, although the keyboard is used sometimes. This style of music first began emerging when musicians started playing together, about 40 years back, especially in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa. A number of percussion instruments, tubas, trumpets, and trombones are the chief instruments that are played.
Today, banda can be found from the underground scenes in Mexico to wedding music. It has evolved into a very expressive form of music. Most of its flavor is imparted by the accordion.
Norteño style of traditional Mexican music is made up of ballads that are sung by the people who live in the northern region of Mexico, which borders the United States, hence the term 'Norteño', which means 'from the north'.
Norteño derives its early lyrics from the German immigrant miners, and sound from the accordion, their native instrument. The locals added their instruments and style similar to mariachi, and used it in their own style.
Norteño is a fascinating blend of several styles of music such as the waltz, the polka, and country music. Its lively rhythms and beats are belted out energetically by large guitars and accordions, known as 'bajo sexto', which form the main instruments of this style.
Tejano is an offshoot of Norteño, which was formed after the influence of Texan country music on Norteño.
Corrido is an old style of Mexican folk ballad. The lyrics (and the colloquialism) come from working-class Mexicans and are often heavy with the Spanish style of romance and tragedy. Corridos are usually either grim or satirical. As with other traditional Mexican music, old corridos also describe real events that happened to people, although modern corridos include varying amounts of fiction.
Son (Spanish for "Sound") has been in Mexico ever since the colonial era, when the Spanish were introduced to string instruments. It is divided into more styles according to the region. For example, Son Jaliscience was predominant in Jalisco. Son Jaliscience is also known to be the predecessor to mariachi.
Son music is directly related to the Baroque era and therefore, derives a lot of musical techniques from it. The three other common types of son are Son Jarocho, Son Huasteco and Son Chiapaneco.
Almost every style of Mexican music, except for a few like corrido, are directly related to a typical dance form. The popularity of traditional Mexican music has spread beyond the borders of Mexico, and is enjoyed in the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Wherever Mexicans go, they have taken their rich heritage, culture and music with them.