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Mariachi is recognized throughout the world as a visual and sound symbol of Mexico. The vocal style emphasizes operatic qualities, and the instrumental performance demonstrates a level of virtuosity that reflects advanced musical training. In short, today’s mariachi ensembles aspire to a performance standard that has emerged over the past seventy years. The tradition’s popularity is indicative of its important cultural position as an expression of identity for audiences on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The visual and sound elements considered by today’s mariachi are heard by contemporary musicians and audiences as being representative of an “authentic” mariachi performance. However, questions emerge regarding the impact of social, political, and cultural life on mariachi development. How, and why did mariachi, out of all the regional musical traditions in Mexico, achieve the status of national ensemble?
In Mexico, nationalism was a way to redefine the nation, as well as prevent any ideas of ethnic autonomy that may have surfaced following the Mexican Revolution. Nationalist efforts focused on stabilizing the government and attempting to forge some sense of unity among the population. Culture was utilized as the vehicle through which the signs and symbols of a redefined Mexico would emerge. José Vasconcelos, director of the Secretaría de Educación Pública during the Obregón presidency embarked on a campaign of cultural nationalism that positioned music and the arts as central elements that would shape Mexican national identity. Under Vasconcelos, culture was a tool for post-revolutionary nationalism that was applied throughout the country and became even more pervasive through educational radio programs in the late 1920s and into the 30s.
How it works
In Mexico, musical nationalism emerged through the folkloric expressions of regional communities that were broadcast throughout the nation. The mixture of government and commercial interests fueled the transformation of mariachi at the national level. Through the media production of culture, mariachi was refashioned for popular consumption. Cultural nationalism also provided a way to acknowledge and simultaneously mask regional differences or political tensions that may have existed. Author and musicologist Thomas Turino points out: “Cultural nationalist programs typically seek to celebrate ethnic and regional distinctiveness (‘folkways’) contrasted with cosmopolitan forms and practices to define the uniqueness of a given nation. But they must also carefully balance this with incorporating such distinctions into the very definition of the nation so as to diffuse cultural difference as a resource for separatism.” (Nationalism and Latin American Music: Selected Case Studies and Theoretical Considerations, Latin American Music Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Austin: University of Texas Press.)
Connected to the nationalist project is the notion of “selective tradition” which refers to “an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification” (Williams 1977, 115). The nature of the radio, recording and film industries as entities developed certain practices through processes of commodification that affected not only how music was produced, but in what form the “message of cultural nationalism” was transmitted to a global audience.
Cultural nationalism occupied an important place within Mexican nationalist discourse and continued throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Revolutionary nationalism needed images and sounds for its influence in Mexican politics and social life. These images and sounds were effective reminders that continually shaped and reshaped Mexican political and social thought in the 1920s and ’30s. These discourses of revolutionary nationalism stemmed from the need to present a coherent version of the Revolution and its perceived outcomes for the current population. This was also essential to lay the foundation for an account of revolutionary ideals for subsequent generations. By conceptualizing the Revolution as an inevitable event that grew out of the excesses of the Díaz regime, revolutionary nationalism and the rebuilding of the “nation” achieved a “national culture” that advocated a selective memory of the past as the binding element. Music and the arts, as expressions of “the people,” were utilized in the effort to link national identity through visual and musical expressions.
Similarly, the notion of “style as process” (Feld 1994) subtly changes the context of music as a means of relaying preconceived motives. “Style as process” as a conceptual frame considers the interactive and dynamic nature of musical production. It brings together records, radio, and film as distinct cultural processes with implications for the development of musical style. The media industries altered traditional ways and implemented generalized methods of production to meet capitalist demands. Musical “style as process” moves the conceptualization of sound beyond the level of “influence” to how the sounds themselves were changed and manipulated through the production of culture. As processes, the record, radio, and film industries each had their distinctive methods of production and means of distribution. The notion of “style as process” positions music performance within the economic, political, and cultural environment that shaped cultural production for national and international consumption.
Because of this transformation in the shift of musical production in the mid-1920s, mariachi entered into the urban social and cultural life of Mexico City, having to adjust to a new performance context. Mariachi echoed its rural past and became an emblem for Mexico’s western region. Mariachi was absorbed into urban social life and engaged with the record, radio, and film industries and their processes of cultural production. As an ensemble and a repertory, mariachi was transformed by media processes and standardized through the circulation and distribution of cultural products in Mexico, Spain, Latin America, and the southwestern U.S.
By the 1930s, mariachi was actively involved in processes of cultural production as the radio, recording, and film industries expanded and gained in political and economic power. Through an emerging network of sounds and images, mariachi was transformed from a regional cultural practice with multiple instrumental combinations and performance genres, to a single ensemble form linked to a specific repertory. This select version of the mariachi tradition was offered to audiences in Mexico, Spain, and the Americas as an authentic representation and, in turn, was validated by unprecedented popularity and iconic status for singing stars such as Tito Guízar and Jorge Negrete.
As records, radio and, particularly, films gained widespread distribution within the global production of culture, the images and sounds of mariachi became markers of identity and linked to notions of Mexicanidad (Mexican identity). Mariachi as an ensemble and a repertory was dramatically transformed by the production of culture in the post-revolutionary period from 1920 to 1942. In the urban context, mariachi became a new cultural formation and moved into public spheres of discourse and performance. Removed from its rural setting, the modern mariachi expanded and developed new practices defined by urban social life. Public performances in plazas and restaurants were natural transitions, but they could also lead back to more traditional contexts in the forms of serenatas and performances in the musical celebration of life-cycle events. In this way, it could be said that mariachi maintained continuity with the past while adapting to the needs of a diverse urban population that desired entertainment mixed with social meaning. This practice was consistent with the ideals of a Mexican modernity that retained traditions of the past and “the people” while it created new currents for urban social and economic life (García Canclini 1995, 146). As mariachi became urbanized and participated in new technologies of cultural production, historical links emerged through nationalist efforts that maintained tradition, yet allowed for the creation of new genres and styles of performance. These new performance forms resonated with a particular aesthetic that was perceived as the essence of an idealized past; yet, as new creations, were tailored to fit the needs of the production of culture demanded by the new media industries.
U.S. and Mexican media industries transformed mariachi from a rural tradition to a national icon and sound symbol of identity. The political, social, economic, and cultural conditions in the 1920s represented an era of tremendous change. The political and social chaos produced by the Revolution caused large segments of the population to leave their homes in the countryside for life in the city. As a result, cultural practices were displaced and bombarded with new influences. The mariachi of the city participated in technologies and contexts that were completely foreign to the rural tradition. The relationship of music with electronic media combined with historical, political, and cultural ideologies became the popular path within the mariachi tradition.
The repertory and performance practices developed along different lines of influence that had no connection with the rural context. Composers and arrangers re-energized the repertory with the canción ranchera and held onto the son jalisciense through new compositions and arrangements. Continuity took the form of an evocation and the tradition was forever transformed. Yet, in the popular music arena, mariachi thrived as a result of the new works by composers such as José Alfredo Jiménez and performers like Pedro Infante. For the next two decades, the popularity of mariachi did not diminish and in fact, it expanded as the Mexican recording, radio, and film industries continued to grow. Although its popularity would eventually curtail in the 1960s and 70s, the tradition was re-energized in the 1980s and 90s and recognized for its unique position and significance as a visual and sound symbol of Mexicanidad.
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