How Mexican Traditions Work

By: Dave Roos

Traditional Mexican Music

Traditional Mexican music, perhaps even more so than Mexican food or Mexican clothing, is the result of a unique intermingling of world cultures. When Hernán Cortés came ashore in 1519, his crew included professional musicians who taught the natives to play the harp and an early guitar called a vihuela [source: Clark]. Over the following centuries, the Spanish introduced more instruments from the classical European tradition, like the violin, the cornet and eventually the trumpet. While the wealthy Spanish ruling class and Catholic monks used these instruments to play cultured música, a different kind of sound was evolving in the countryside.

Son is the generic term for traditional Mexican folk music. The rhythms and melodies of son were heavily influenced by indigenous and African music as well as Spanish instrumentation [source: La Tuza]. While there are several regional variations -- son jarocho in Veracruz, son huasteco of northeastern Mexico and son calentano of south-central Mexico, to name a few -- most son music employs guitar, guiatarrón (large bass guitar), violin and a sometimes a small drum. The typical son rhythm is a brisk 6/8 or 4/4 time, as heard in the classic son jarocho tune "La Bamba," a livelier version of the song made famous by Mexican-American rocker Richie Valens.


All other Mexican musical traditions developed from the folk legacy of son. Mariachi is perhaps the most famous. Born in the western state of Jalisco in the 19th century, Mariachi music is typically played by a large traveling ensemble (10 to 20 musicians, who are also individually called Mariachi) including guitar, vihuela, guitarrón, violins, trumpets and drums. Modern Mariachi troupes often have a lead singer, although everyone in the group contributes two- or even three-part harmony. The Mariachi repertoire is composed largely of romantic ballads meant to be sung at weddings, quinceñeras, Mother’s Day and other family celebrations. The uniform of the Mariachi is a traje de charro, the tight-fitting, heavily ornamented and embroidered outfit of a horseman, complete with a broad-rimmed sombrero [source: Clark].

Ranchera music is another tradition closely tied to son or Mexican folk music. Ranchera music, which literally means "from the ranch" or the countryside, evolved during the era of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. For this reason, Ranchera music is often considered the most "Mexican" of musical forms, with many songs revolving around themes of patriotism and national pride. Many Ranchera ballads are sung in 3/4 time, based on the popularity of the polka at the turn of the 20th century. Corridos are a subset of Ranchera that tell epic tales of heroes and villains. Ranchera songs are punctuated by the infamous grito mexicano, the high-pitched yelp that has become a trademark of the form [source: Hacienda Tres Rios].

Norteño music is the traditional musical form of northern Mexico along the border with the United States. The evolution of Norteño was heavily influenced by German, Czech, Bohemian and Moravian immigrants, who popularized the use of the accordion and the tuba in Mexico [source: University of Texas at Austin]. The "oom-pah-pah" rhythms and unique instrumentation of Norteño clearly distinguish this musical tradition from Ranchera and Mariachi.

Let's finish with an exploration of some of Mexico's most unique holiday traditions.