In preparation for this project, I have had several occasions over the past years to completely immerse myself in mariachi music, which I have known both as a performer and listener for more than 17 years. During these times of immersion I would cycle through my collection of more than 200 mariachi compact disks and many tapes and records. Some of these recordings are vintage ones, or CD re-releases of the earliest known recordings. Some are of marginal sound quality by today's standards but were extremely popular in the 1940's and 50's -- still considered classics to this day, on the level of Nat King Cole, early Frank Sinatra and others. The range of my small collection extends from historic recordings from the turn of the Twentieth Century through differing levels of professional and amateur recordings from the 1930's through the 1990's and up to highly virtuosic, professional, digitally recorded, studio quality recordings released this year.
Luckily, in many respects, I was also spending a large amount of time taking care of my now 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte. During this time she unintentionally became a sort of human subject in an accidental experiment which in the end proved conclusively the hypothesis upon which this project is based. One day when she was 3 years old -- after having learned by osmosis what "mariachi" was, learned to recognize it when it comes on TV, to say "that's not mariachi, but it's like mariachi" when she heard American pop music with acoustic guitar strumming -- I put on a fairly recent recording of a "mid-level" mariachi which she had never heard before, and she said: "I don't like that mariachi music, put on some other mariachi music." I asked why she didn't like it, and she cryptically responded "because it sounds broken."
Curious to discover to what exactly she was responding, I pulled out one of my oldest, scratchiest, least "professional" sounding but very "authentic" sounding recordings. If she disliked the first recording for trivial reasons, because it wasn't recorded as well as the ones we had been listening to earlier, she would no doubt dislike this next recording even more. But if she disliked the first recording for substantive musical reasons, because it was less mariachi, less authentic, because the players had less of a command of the essence of what mariachi is, then she should actually prefer this next, old, scratchy yet authentic recording.
And sure enough, she enjoyed the next recording. Somehow, while sitting at home and in the car listening to me play hours of mariachi recordings, old and new, she learned to intuitively identify that which every true mariachi musician can -- there is something that is mariachi. Exactly what that is is extremely difficult to articulate, but very few mariachis disagree when they hear it -- they just know what it is.
When you know mariachi and you hear it, it is instantaneously recognizable. Likewise, when you hear someone imitating mariachi -- salsa commercials on TV made in LA by the same American composers and producers who do candy bar commercials, and played by American studio trumpet players, for example -- this too is instantaneously recognizable. As well, one who is very familiar with mariachi can hear when it is not done very well, even if it is being done by a "real" mariachi. This recording to which Charlotte objected was not poorly recorded, it was not horribly out of tune, the ensemble was not terribly unrehearsed, the players and singers were not bad, the recording was not physically damaged -- the group just did not, in this recording, display a great deal of that which is mariachi. To her this just sounded wrong -- it sounded broken.
So what then is mariachi? Is it an ensemble, a group of specific instrumentation? What then exists when this ensemble plays arrangements of obviously non-mariachi music? So is it a type of music or song? Then what exists when other ensembles play these same songs? Is it a sort of feeling that is stimulated in a listener, or that is generated by a performer? Is it a style, a manner of playing? Is it a culture, a way of life? What does it mean to play mariachi, and to be mariachi, or to be a mariachi? And why?
Unquestionably, as I suspected in the beginning and as Charlotte has since proven, there is something that is mariachi. In the following pages, in at attempt to understand what this is, I will discuss my own experiences and what I have learned from others about what it means to be a mariachi, and specifically a mariachi trumpet player. I will discuss what it is that the mariachi trumpet players do that is so unique, why they do it this way, how the "classical" trumpet player might go about learning to play this way, and why I feel many classical musicians could actually benefit from an understanting of the frame of mind, the attitude, the perspective on performance that is mariachi.