One spring day, while I was knee-deep in producing a report at my cluttered desk for a Seattle, Washington health-care institution, I received an email from our Human Resources department. It touted the fact that Friday would be “Crazy Hat Day”. HR occasionally attempted to conjure up something special to break the monotony of our staff’s difficult and demanding jobs. This particular idea was a little different from “Sundae Friday”, when everyone was treated to ice cream, or “Emergency Radio Day”, when everyone was gifted a hand-cranked radio that doubled as a flashlight. This email encouraged everyone to wear a “crazy” hat, such as a beanie with a propeller on top, a homemade paper hat, or — a sombrero. Ouch! That last one got my attention!
I’m a big, really big, fan of Mexican music. I’m not of Mexican heritage; but a piece of my soul seems to be. And, I’m fortunate to live in the Puget Sound area, which is served by a great community radio station, KBCS FM. KBCS carries a program entitled “Musica de la Raza”, which spotlights all manner of Mexican music, for two hours, every single week. While its host and creator, Patty Fong, spins records of performances encompassing many genres, including Son Jarocho, Son Huasteco, ranchera, nuevo cancion, and Mexican hip-hop, I’ve come to especially love the Mariachi music Ms. Fong plays every week.
I came of age in the hot, arid, small town of Yakima, Washington in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thanks to my thoughtful parents buying me a YMCA membership, I was able to have friends whose backgrounds were not the same as mine. I’ve always had a desire to learn about other people’s customs — to hear their music, enjoy their art, taste their wonderful cooking. The Yakima I grew up in didn’t exactly foster relations between the cultures. Without the “Y”, it would have been much harder for me to have multi-cultural experiences in Yakima. I made friends with boys who came from many ethnic backgrounds, including Mexican-American. I was able to occasionally hear Mexican music in Yakima, although not often. I’m unsure if hearing that little bit of Mexican music is what planted the seed; but my love for the music is strong. As far as Mariachi music is concerned, there’s so much that I appreciate, and so much that I need to learn.
I was blessed to be able to attend a Mariachi workshop conducted by the great, award-winning Eastern Washington educator, Mr. Ramon Rivera, Wenatchee High School instructor, at the Northwest Regional Folklife festival, a few years ago, here in Seattle. Some of what I share with you in this piece, I learned at that workshop, which featured the Wenatchee High School Mariachi, aka Mariachi Huenachi. Mr. Rivera asked the young men and women of the ensemble to demonstrate their various instruments, including the violin, trumpet, harp, guitarron and vihuela.
Mariachi music combines vivacious excitement, the pageantry of a stately delivery, a sense of tradition, a preciseness of musicianship, and – soul. I didn’t copy that sentence out of wiki, or some website. I wrote that from my heart. I’ve been very fortunate to enjoy in person, the sound of a Mariachi on only about ten occasions. But each time, I’ve been caught up in the power and spectacle of the performance and celebration!
Mariachi music was transformed in the 20th century, from a rural folk music originating in the state of Jalisco, to an urban phenomenon, and the dynamic sound we hear today which has come to represent Mexico. It began as a way for farmers to entertain themselves at the end of the day. Over the years, the original ensemble of violin, vihuela and guitar has been expanded by the addition of trumpets, bass, harp, and even woodwinds. Elements of jazz and Cuban music have been added. Mariachi has evolved in other ways; one of the changes is the rising trend of female mariachi musicians, and all-female mariachi bands. Groups featuring both males and females are abundant.
Mariachi music and tradition are very important to the culture. The music is a wonderful part of many community celebrations and festivals. But according to Mr. Rivera, the musicians, or Mariachis, as they are called, must be very expert not only at playing their instruments or singing beautifully; they must do everything from memory! (More about this later.)
I will quote a little here, and give you the link to my source, so you can read further. According to the website, VisitMexico.com, “the suit worn by modern mariachi musicians is an embellished version of the traje de charro, the costume worn by horse riders in the Mexican equestrian tradition: a waist-length jacket and fitted pants (or skirt for women) trimmed with silver buttons sewn down each side, or a geometric design made with appliqued suede or embroidery, and ankle-high boots. Accessories include a wide embroidered belt, a large bow tie and the sombrero.” Since the sombrero is considered an accessory, it is permissible to forgo the wearing of the sombrero. Some of my photos here reflect that; but here is one of a group in full regalia:
Mariachi sombreros evolved from the charro (“horseman”) sombrero. They are more embellished, with gold yarn and thread. They are made of cardboard and cloth, and they have a tie to wear around the neck. Sombreros are the crowning glory of the Mariachi suit. This beautiful black and gold one comes from my collection. I’ve had it for approximately 30 years.
As I noted earlier, Mariachi musicians memorize their music. They espouse the use of sheet music. In the world of Mariachi, a musician’s worth is measured by his or her skills of memorization and retention. A good Mariachi singer will know literally hundreds of lyrics by heart, and can improvise vocally. And musicians “know their talón,” meaning they can play a large amount of repertoire, from memory.
In addition to singers and musicians, many Mariachi ensembles also include colorfully clad dancers, in traditional dress, who perform folk dances, or zapateado, while accompanied by the Mariachi. To witness a large Mariachi with a contingent of dancers tapping, stepping and twirling to the music is such a joy!
Mariachi music is played by people all over the world. There are Mariachis not only in Mexico and America, but also in Japan, and Croatia! But Mariachi is quintessentially Mexican. VisitMexico.com has this to say: “Mariachi symbolizes Mexican music, culture and history. An appreciation for mariachi is strong among music lovers around the globe. With its recognition as part of the intangible culture of humanity, Mariachi will undoubtedly continue to represent the unique sound of Mexico.”
So to close, may I humbly request? As a way of showing respect for the great Mariachi tradition, can we perhaps wear a foil hat, or a beanie, or a “Cat In The Hat” type of hat on crazy hat day? And hey! Have fun. Just remember: the sombrero is rich with cultural symbolism. It stands for tradition, excellence, integrity and the celebration of the human spirit. Thank you!
Randy “Jimmie James” Bowles, Seattle, WA.
(You may need to copy and paste the following links, due to a wordpress glitch)
To view a stunning YouTube performance by Mariach Huenachi with dancers, go here (remember: these are high school students!):
To enjoy a streaming archive webcast of Patty Fong’s Musica de la Raza, simply go here: http://kbcs.fm/programs/musica-de-la-raza/ She can also be heard live, Saturdays, from 6-9 pm on 91.3 FM, or at KBCS.fm.
Here is a great website where you can learn more about the Mariachi tradition: http://www.visitmexico.com/en/mariachi-tradition-in-guadalajara-jalisco-mexico
And, to illustrate that song, here is print of a painting by the great Mexican calendar artist, Jesus Helguera (1910-1971), of an Adelita. An Adelita was a soldadera, or woman soldier, who not only cooked and cared for the wounded, but also fought in battle. Mr. Helguera’s work, while very romanticized, was beautiful to the eye: