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Mariachi is a type of musical group, originally from Mexico, consisting of at least two violins, two trumpets, one Spanish guitar, one vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar) and one guitarrón (a small-scaled acoustic bass), but sometimes featuring more than twenty musicians.

The word mariachi was long considered to be derived from marriage, the French word for marriage, since mariachi music is often played at weddings, but this theory has recently been discredited. The earliest known appearance of the word mariachi in reference to music is from 1852, nearly ten years prior to the French intervention in 1861. Another theory states that the word originated in the language of the Coca Indians in the early 16th century and originally referred to the wooden platform on which the musicians often performed, which was made of the wood of the Pilla or Cirimo tree. Yet another theory claims that the guitars were made of this wood.

Mariachi music as we know it today originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, according to popular legend in the town of Cocula, in the 19th century. The mariachi was the distinctive version of the Spanish theatrical orchestra of violins, harp and guitars which developed in and around Jalisco. By the end of the nineteenth century, the vihuela, two violins, and the guitarrón, which had replaced the harp, were the instruments of the mariachi.

The mariachi sound, known as son, is a mixture of Spanish, native and African traditions and differs from region to region. The son jalisciense from the Jalisco region is exemplified by the popular mariachi piece La Negra. The son jarocho or son veracruzano from Veracruz often has the harp instead of the guitarrón as the primary bass instrument and is exemplified by La Bamba. The son huasteco or huapango from southeastern Mexico often includes a flute as part of the standard ensemble and is exemplified by La Malagueña and Serenata Huasteca.

In the 19th century, many mariachi were itinerant labourers moving from one hacienda to another, often more than the average labourer. With the revolution, however, many of the haciendas were forced to dismiss the mariachi, who then wandered from town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, and carrying news from one place to another. The mariachi took to playing in public venues for a fee. One of the most popular of these venues was San Pedro Tlaquepaque in the state of Jalisco, a fashionable place for the residents of Guadalajara to spend the summer.

From the beginning, mariachi music was dance music. The traditional dance technique associated with both the son jalisciense and son jarocho is the zapateado. When dancing the zapateado, which originated in Spain, the performers drive the heels of their boots into the dance-floor, pounding out swift, often syncopated rhythms which complement that of the musical instruments. Another typical mariachi dance, the jarabe tapatio or Mexican Hat Dance, from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, has become the national dance of Mexico. It is highly stylized, with prescribed movements and costumes. The male wears the classic outfit the Jalisco horsemen or charro, while the female wears a hand-woven shawl and a bright sequined skirt.

Until the 1930s, mariachi groups were semi-professional and almost entirely unknown outside their own region. This began to change when the mariachi band Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded by Gaspar Vargas in 1898, went from Jalisco to Mexico City. Populist President Lázaro Cárdenas invited them to play at his inauguration in 1934, and later to accompany him in his campaign in 1936.

Silvestre Vargas, who had taken over from his father as leader of the Mariachi Vargas in 1928, soon hired a trained musician, Rubén Fuentes, as musical director. Together, Vargas and Fuentes standardized musical arrangements for many of the popular sones and insisted on the use of written music, which greatly facilitated the exchange among different mariachi bands. Their arrangements were used by the great singers of their time, including Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran, and José Alfredo Jiménez. Influenced by Jazz and Cuban music in the 1950s, they introduced the trumpet into the standard ensemble, which now included six to eight violins, a guitarrón, a vihuela, a guitar, two trumpets, and occasionally a harp as well.

Aided by the advent of radio, television, and the movies, mariachi music went on to become a definitive part of Mexican culture, and the mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán appeared in over 200 films in the 1940s and 1950s, often considered the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

Prior to the 1930s, photographs show early mariachis dressed in calzones de manta, and huaraches, homespun white cotton pants and shirts and leather sandals, the clothes worn by most peasants in Jalisco. During the 1930s, however, many mariachi took to wearing the traje de charro, consisting of a waist-length jacket and tightly fitted wool pants which open slightly at the ankle to fit over a short riding boot. Both pants and jacket are often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs, or silver buttons in a variety of shapes. This outfit is often complemented by a large bowtie, a wide belt and a large sombrero. It is said that General Porfirio Díaz ordered a mariachi band to wear charro suits while playing for the United States Secretary of State. If true, this may be the source of traditional dress for mariachi bands.

The mariachi tradition has been extended from Mexico to other countries, particularly Colombia, and mariachi music is popular in many countries around the world, particularly the United States, where it was introduced by Mexican immigrants.

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