¿Donde esta la musica?

Here’s a query that came up with a student the other day. Decades ago, in the early ’80s, my wife and I attended the wedding in Chicago of a couple of Hispanic friends. The reception was marked by the most amazing music played by a huge mariachi band: over half a dozen brass players, multiple guitars, wild percussion. It was hot, rhythmically intricate stuff whose meters were difficult to parse, and whose melodies took several repetitions to pin down. Le Sacre‘s complexity paled before it. If it wasn’t in meters like 13/8 or 17/16, I couldn’t have proved it myself. The counterpoint had more voices than I could count. I was spellbound. I had never heard anything like it.

And I haven’t since. I’ve bought various recordings of mariachi music, and never found anything particularly more challenging than “Cielito Lindo.” I’ve consulted experts, I’ve taken recommendations, and I can’t find any recorded mariachi music remotely as difficult or sophisticated as I heard at that wedding. Some of it’s rhythmically lively, of course, but none of it had that level of metrical complexity. Does anyone know where such mariachi music can be found? And why the recorded examples seem so ridiculously watered down? Did I stumble across the one Mexican group whose musicians had all studied with Nancarrow?


  1. Paul H. Muller says

    If you don’t mind some pure speculation, here in SoCal “Mariachi” is a sort of generic label. It may be that what you heard was from a certain section of Mexico, Central America or farther south. Maybe the group simply got more gigs billed as Mariachis.
    I once heard a Peruvian street band and the music was mesmerizing. Who knows what’s lurking out there…
    KG replies: I’ve heard good Peruvian street bands too, fascinating in a very different way. I’m hoping someone can pinpoint that section of Mexico or further south, if that’s what it is.

  2. Fred Schneider says

    Just curious, Kyle … did people attempt to dance to it?
    KG replies: Not that I recall – this is a 26-year-old memory. And I exaggerate when I say 13/8, it was probably more like 8/8 or 9/8 oddly divided, with cross-accents over the bar line or something.

  3. Joe Kubera says

    I don’t know much about mariachi music but most Mexican popular music I know seems remarkably simple rhythmically. (My experience is limited to the sort heard over local radio or in Mexican restaurants.) I’ve often wondered why it is so much simpler than other Latin American music (like salsa or Afro-Cuban). Less African influence, more purely European?

  4. Kyle says

    Perhaps it seems too obvious, but have you asked the Hispanic couple who they had play at their wedding?
    KG replies: We soon left Chicago and lost touch with them. Since that was my first live mariachi music beyond what I’d heard in the movies, I assumed I would be able to find more like it, and only realized after several years how rare an experience I’d had.

  5. John Kennedy says

    “Mariachi” is not likely to involve meters as you suggest but in the best stuff the syncopation can be deceptive. Have you asked Peter Garland? He has sent me a lot of tapes of indigenous Mexican and Salvadoran music that might fit the description, but is not necessarily metrically complex.
    KG replies: I bought several CDs in Santa Fe at Peter’s recommendation, but never found anything similar, or even very interesting.

  6. William Hogeland says

    Hey, look at me, commenting on your blog!
    Doesn’t sound “mariachi” to me either. From your description, my kneejerk advice would be to look to our old friends the Cubans (for heat, brass, multiple guitars, etc.) When it comes to rhythm, however, I fear that what sounds pleasingly complex to my vernacular ear (and that Cuban stuff really does) will sound like Stephen Foster to you. So I don’t know … How drunk were you at this wedding?
    KG replies: Well, I wasn’t drunk when the music *started*. I’ll look around for some Cuban stuff.

  7. says

    I’m by no means expert, but from your description, I’d look to salsa or maybe Colombian music.
    Good luck, and good listening!

  8. Ivan Sparrow says

    One thing is for sure, mariachi music is percussion-less.
    There was a time, around the 1950’s I believe, when Big-Band-Style bands were very popular in mexican dance clubs. From what I’ve listened to, which isn’t much, it sounds like there is jazz and latin (cuban) influences in the music; and yes, it has percussion.