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Got Mariachi?
Michael Stone reviews a book and some CDs that cover the style - high and low.

The longstanding presence and continuous growth of the Mexican-descent population in the United States has fostered an autonomous and dynamic sphere of cultural expression in which the folk music traditions of Mexico play a prominent role. For those seeking more than liner-note lite, Mariachi Music in America, by Daniel Sheehy (an expert on Mexican folk genres, and director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), draws upon decades of field research, extensive knowledge of mariachi history, and enlightening interviews with ensembles on both sides of the Rio Grande, tempered by long experience as a mariachi performer himself. The result is a concise, well-informed and clearly written monograph that should interest practitioners, students, and fans alike. Also included is a glossary of Spanish-language terminology, historical photographs, a bibliography, a discography, an index, and an accompanying 26-track CD that illustrate the book’s musicological and sociocultural observations.

Mariachi Music in America is a case study in Oxford’s Global Music Series, designed especially with teaching in mind. Two framing volumes (Thinking Musically and Teaching Music Globally) theoretically anchor the overall project. Each case study takes the contemporary setting as its point of departure, and offers sufficient historical depth to establish a comparative context for understanding such cross-cutting issues such as authenticity, gender, globalization, and markets. The series seeks to enable teachers and students to move away from the comprehensive textbook survey that shaped world music teaching in its formative period. If Mariachi Music in America is any measure, this strategy offers a flexible means to understand and appreciate how people use music as a source of enjoyment and meaning in their everyday lives.

Sheehy begins by introducing mariachi, which he calls “one of the most extroverted, expressive, exciting forms of Latin American music,” and a striking idiom that has come to symbolize and enact Mexican national culture in Mexico and far beyond. Sheehy traces the mariachi’s growth in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, explains his own attraction to and involvement as a performer and scholar, and presents verbatim commentary by prominent performers.

Chapter Two lays out the basis of the modern mariachi sound, its derivation from the rural traditions of nineteenth-century western Mexico, and its deeper historical roots in Spanish colonial culture. Sheehy traces the mariachi ensemble’s twentieth-century evolution, citing the influence of important innovators, the poetic and rhythmic figures and genres that endow mariachi with its formal aesthetic character, and the importance of the vihuela, guitarrón and harp in shaping the characteristic sound.

Chapter Three addresses the social constitution of mariachi music, and its transformation­through a globally familiar process of urbanization and commercialization­from a low-status music to an artistically recognized index of transnational Mexican identity. The musical trajectory of violinist and bandleader Nati Cano, founder and director of the trailblazing Mariachi Los Camperos, plays an important role in illustrating that transformation. (More on Cano in a minute.)

Sheehy also underscores the importance of such artists as singer Lucha Reyes and violinists Leonor Pérez, Rebecca González and Laura Sobrino in opening mariachi to female participation, while enhancing its social status among Mexican Americans. Sheey notes the symbiotic relationship between mariachi culture and the expanding popularity of Mexican restaurants vis-à-vis the music’s development in the U.S. Southwest. Chapter Four extends that insight with a more thoroughgoing analysis of mariachi’s economic ramifications, the growth and diversification of the mariachi market, and the various social and economic settings in which mariachi has continued to develop.

The final chapter addresses ever-vexed question of musical change and authenticity, particularly mariachi’s shifting cultural meanings and evolving social contexts. Notable are its historical association with the Chicano rights, farmworkers’, and women’s movements; the growth of folk festivals in the United States; and the proliferation of mariachi instruction in public schools, Mexican cultural-arts centers, and universities­most notably in Texas, Arizona, and California. Sheehy deliberately refers back to the views of traditional musicians themselves, registering their critique that while younger musicians may well be more technically proficient, in the view of many older practitioners, festival culture is seen to foster and reward a less traditionally rooted representation, and a dilettante’s shortcut grasp of the nuances and expressive potential of mariachi music.

Of course, this sort of doom saying may well be the fate of every successive generation as it surveys the changes and innovations wrought by younger interpreters and fans. But Mariachi Music in America has the virtue of eschewing a common impulse to lock a given genre into particular formal and social modes. Sheehy gently but persuasively encourages the reader to resist such a move, while seeking to ensure the preservation of the music’s best elements in the course of its inevitable cultural evolution.

Sheehy is also the producer of numerous recordings of contemporary Mexican music, in particular those of Nati Cano, based in Los Angeles and one of mariachi’s most prominent U.S. proponents. Cano’s recent Smithsonian releases include ¡Llegaron Los Camperos! Concert Favorites, and Amor, dolor y lágrimas: Música ranchera. The first gives an excellent sense of mariachi’s U.S. framing and presentation on the concert stage, while the second in effect documents how the contemporary genre borrows freely from allied Mexican folk forms, including ranchera, norteño, corridor, and the son huasteca of southeastern Mexico. Superbly produced, extensively documented, and rounded out with historic and contemporary photographs, bibliography, and discography, these titles constitute a solid introduction to Cano and the genre as it has evolved in the United States. Sheehy’s voluminous liner notes offer a detailed insider view, narrated by Cano himself, regarding his struggle and that of his contemporaries to put mariachi on the musical map, fascinating, informative, and thought provoking.

Also based in southern California, overshadowed by giants like Cano but no less dedicated and relevant, is Mariachi Real de San Diego. Their Mariachi Classics is precisely that, a competent survey of the genre’s perennially popular chestnuts, and testimony to the music’s continuing vitality in this important border region. In consequence, no genre as ubiquitous as mariachi can avoid being put through the novelty wringer, it seems.

Mariachi: The Sound of Hysteria and Heartache, a spirited German compilation, serves up traditional tear-jerkers by the likes of Mariachi Vargas, Dolores del Río, and Linda Ronstadt; the electronic noodling of Nortec Collective and Wakal; Calexico’s spaghetti-western workout and the rapping reggaetón of Corsarios del Tiempo; a roguish “Mariachi Love Song” by Rory McLeod (who knew?); Antonio Eugenio Martínez’s kiddie mariachi (wunderkind singer with cartoon voice - he must be all of five years old); Fatboy Slim’s mariachi dub and Willy De Ville’s Dylanesque, “Guantanamera”-like interpretation of “Hey Joe”; Zdob Si Zdub’s bastard Romanian mariachi, the perhaps inevitable Japanese translation (Toshinori Kondo’s hijacked chestnut “Cerezo Rosa”), and the flamingly politically incorrect killer track, “Fake Mexican Tourist Blues.” Irony is the sincerest form of imitation, user discretion advised. - Michael Stone

Referenced Books and Recordings (links are to cdroots.com)

Daniel Sheehy
Mariachi Music in America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006, with music CD)

Nati Cano’s Mariachi los Camperos
¡Llegaron Los Camperos! Concert Favorites
Smithsonian Folkways

Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano
Amor, dolor y lágrimas: Música ranchera
Smithsonian Folkways

Mariachi Real de San Diego
Mariachi Classics
Mardi Gras Records MG1120 ( www.mardigrasrecords.com)

Various artists Mariachi: The Sound of Hysteria and Heartache Trikont US-0365 (www.trikont.com )

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