Words by Isabela Raygoza
Fact: mariachi music is one of the most represented forms of Mexican folkloric identity today. Another fact: no one really knows where the word “mariachi” originated. Born in the city of Guadalajara where charrería (Mexican rodeo) and tequila also prosper, many have speculated it came from the French word mariage – since it’s commonly played at weddings. It also emerged near the time of the French intervention in Mexico during the 19th century. However, this theory was later disproven when the word was shown to be older.
Regardless of where the term specifically originated, Mexico is mariachi’s home. It grew out of older Mexican styles — son jaliscience, son jarocho, son huasteco — and absorbed many more aspects of Mexico’s musical history like huapangos, baladas (ballads), even polkas and waltzes.
It was later in 20th century, near the Mexican Revolution, when mariachi adopted charro garb and incorporated trumpets to their sound – instrumentally, before it was just violins, vihuelas (five string guitar), guitarrón (bass), and occasionally, the harp.
Nowadays, mariachi travels beyond borders (e.g. Peru, Japan, etc.) and even fuses with other sounds unconventionally (See: Metalachi). As Mexican culture grew stronger in the US, lots of remarkable mariachi groups also began to flourish north of the border. One more fact: Nothing is better than a mariachi band. Here are the 7 that you need to know now.
MARIACHI LAS CORONELAS
It is safe to say that there is rarely any other mariachi group that demonstrates fineness, conviction, and true musicianship all at the same time. Meet Mariachi Las Coronelas. They are a nine-piece bilingual ensemble from the South of Texas who have the ability to drop jaws, and not because of their all-around allure, but because they have skills for days. For proof Just listen to lead vocalist/violinist Vanessa del Fierro, who enchants in “La Malageña” with her striking falsetto, pitch spectrum, and vibrato.
By way of Xalapa, Veracruz, this Bronx-based trio of brothers exceed in the craft of violin. Declared to be child prodigies, Alberto, Luis, and Ernesto Villalobos have been immersed in Mexican folkloric music basically since birth. Mastering several traditional style of Mexican music (mariachi, son jarocho, son huasteco, etc.), they are standouts from the rest of the groups on this list. They’ve also touched on American genres like jazz, blues, and rock, and their original compositions have taken them places like the Latin Grammys and NYC’s Carnegie Hall. Their super high energy performances, musical versatility, and sharp presentations even gained them collabos with artists like Lila Downs and Dolly Parton. Check out their 2012 debut Aliens of Extraordinary Ability.
MARIACHI LOS TOROS
Don’t be fooled by the groovy lime charro outfits they sometimes wear. L.A.’s Mariachi Los Toros aren’t mixing far out fusions like psych-mariachi, or even close to it. What they are doing is kicking ass instrumentally with their über-impressive double strumming techniques and fierce brass melodies. No doubt about it, Mariachi Los Toros perform like true champions. They also proclaim themselves as “The New Era of Mariachi” on Facebook, and we don’t disagree at all. Though, I gotta give props to the vihuela player on his performance in “El Cascabel.”
MARIACHI EL BRONX
Unlike most mariachi groups out there, this group started playing together in L.A.’s progressive punk rock scene at the start of the millennium as The Bronx. Making a name for themselves in the genre, the band made a bold move and went mariachi-punk under the alias of Mariachi El Bronx. Many critics considered their decision to go acoustic while donning charro suits to be the band’s punkest move. The band itself claims that this was an “act of defiance.” On this alter ego, the group released two original studio albums laced with hits like “Holy” and “48 Roses.” Proving they’re more than a novelty, they’ve toured internationally numerous times with gypsy punk tsars Gogol Bordello.
MARIACHI CHAMPAÑA NEVÍN
Here’s another music hybrid for you. Led and founded by the virtuoso mariachi himself, Jeff Nevin, the group fuses two big things – mariachi and classical music – and does it spectacularly. Well known in the mariachi scene and having made multiple guest appearances as a trumpeter for Mariachi Vargas, Nevin also popularized mariachi music for younger generations in California. He directs a college program for mariachi education and leads the group Mariachi Garibaldi. If you’re in the West Coast during Day of the Dead festivities, be sure to catch Mariachi Champaña Nevín on tour where you’ll hear your fave Mexican hits with a luscious symphonic sound.
MARIACHI MYSTERY TOUR
As a Beatles follower, I’ve heard lots of tribute bands attempt to remake the music of the four lauded Liverpudlians. However, this Albuquerque rearing ensemble is something to be psyched about. Combining two of my favorite “old-time” genres (classic rock and mariachi), Mariachi Mystery Tour hardly interferes with The Beatles’ original classics – though that may seem unbelievable since MMT plays MARIACHI. The harmonies are beautifully synchronized, the brass section matches great with the original tracks, and the rhythm section gives it that extra rich, folky flavor.
MARIACHI FLOR DE TOLOACHE
Originally starting off as a trio, this nine-piece outfit declares itself New York’s first all-female mariachi group. Founded by Mireya Ramos in 2008, these ladies have already garnered the attention of numerous mariachi enthusiasts, oddly including ChapStick who featured the clan in a commercial, where they wrote this cute little ditty for the brand. What makes them stand out: their multicultural roots (DR, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, Cuba, and the US), mild hipster aesthetics, and feminine grace — not to mention their notable high-pitch vibratos. All in all, Mariachi Flor de Toloache does traditional Mexican music with flavorful appeal.
HONORABLE MENTION: MARIACHI VARGAS DE TECALITLÁN
No mariachi list is complete without the mention of icons Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. Performing like they’re gearing up for battle in their sones, they also melt the coldest of hearts with the sound of their ballads. Because they’ve long mastered the art of mariachi (dating since 1897 – that’s not a typo!), Mariachi Vargas is in fact the best mariachi band in the world, as continuously quoted by countless critics. They’ve made essential contributions to the genre, such as composing the timeless “La Bikina” among other favorites. Today, they are in their 5th generation of members and continue to evolve gracefully while ensuring a thriving future for mariachi.