Striding across the Plaza Garibaldi with guitar and violin in hand, Alberto and Jésus Jiménez stand out among the dozens of musicians dotted around the Mexico City square long considered the heart of mariachi music. They wear the same bolero jackets, floppy ties and tight trousers with silver buttons down the side – but they look just too clean-cut, and their stride too purposeful, to blend in with the square’s sleazy traditions.
“We are the new generation of Mariachis,” says 25-year-old Jésus, his twin brother nodding in agreement. “Our priority is to be better musicians.”
The Jiménez brothers are students of Mexico’s first mariachi school, launched with a mission to tackle the aura of decadence surrounding mariachi.
“A lot of people associate mariachi music with negative stereotypes like the fat macho man in a dirty suit with a bottle of tequila in one hand and the instrument in the other,” says Leticia Soto, the Mexican American who runs the Ollin Yoliztli Mariachi School. “Mariachi requires dignification.”
This is possible, she insists, because mariachi music is far richer than is often suggested by lyrics which celebrate macho bravado and partying abandon, or wallow in self pitying laments about perfidious women. But to get the best from the music, says Soto, musicians need to improve their technique at the instruments which make up the core of mariachi music: trumpet, violin, guitar, a bass-like instrument called a guitarrón, and the ukulele-like vihuela.
The school, which opened in 2012, is supported by the mariachi union that defines who is allowed to play in Plaza Garibaldi – where jobbing musicians gather to await customers and accost tourists. The square in the heart of Mexico City retains an aura of urban decay, despite a recent renovation and new restrictions on drinking.
At night the square still buzzes with not always tuneful renditions of the classics bought by tourists and locals alike by the song, while 10-piece bands stand ready to squash into minivans and speed across the city to play at private events.
Many of the 180-odd students at the school were unable to read music when they enrolled, despite having played professionally for years.
“Mariachi music has suffered discrimination from musical institutions in Mexico,” says classical composer and pianist Eugenio Delgado, who teaches at the school. Delgado argues that the genre deserves the same level of respect given to jazz or flamenco. Several US music schools, he points out, have long included mariachi courses. “It is actually a very demanding music to play, technically speaking,” he says.
The origins of mariachi go back well over a hundred years to rural western Mexico, but the modern urban version dates from the 1930s when a repertoire was created which draws on musical traditions from all over the country, demanding an unusual level of versatility.
“I think mariachi music has a future in concert halls,” says classically trained Agustín Mendoza, during his trumpet lesson at the school. “That’s where you can really listen to the music.”
But for all the talk of formalisation, teachers and students at the mariachi school also insist they are seeking to complement, rather than suppress, the traditions of fiesta and excess that still underpin much of the music. Nobody questions that the mariachi repertoire would not be the same without composers and singers from the golden era who, like José Alfredo Jiménez and Chavela Vargas, spent days on end drinking in Plaza Garibaldi.
On a recent midday, it was business as usual in the Plaza, just a stone’s throw from the earnest atmosphere in the school. A sozzled group of friends pay a band to sing them songs about heartbreak as they drank in a bar, while about 20 musicians hang around just in case a band missing their instrument passes by on its way to a gig elsewhere in the city.
Leaning against a lamp post alongside his vihuela, 77-year-old Percy Martínez makes it clear that, for him at least, a sanitised mariachi is not an option. “Going to school is great but you have to have it in your blood as well,” he says. “It is mixed up with tequila and cactus spines.”
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