Mariachi is Mexican Blues

Earlier in life, before I learned Spanish, I thought that Mariachi music was great fun. Everything about the musicians is exaggerated. They are brightly dressed with the overly ornate shine of the traditional Mexican vestments. Their hats are grossly oversized and often their boots are long and pointy like an elf’s shoe.

Wikipedia 10 Guadalajara - Mariachi

They move from table to table and sing at high volume with rugged masculine harmony. One tall skinny guy plays a little bitty guitar. Another guy, shorter and much more rotund plays a great big long guitar. His gold tooth shines.

To my American sensibilities everything about the mariachi group screams, “The Mexican circus is in town!”

One weekend, later in life and with passable Spanish language skills, I was hanging out with my Mexican buddies. We were into the back half of a case of Modelo Especial beer when we fired up the VCR.

Hugo and his contingent of cousins are all from the same small town in central-western Mexico. All of them had come to the United States without anyone from their nuclear family; no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no grandparents, no aunts nor uncles. They were young men that relocated themselves in a foreign place in order to better provide for those family that they left behind. As is often the case these eight guys had formed an ad-hoc family unit among themselves.

Despite the support of this de facto family, the strong currents of homesickness in the room was apparent after a few beers.

The video was from home.

Festival days are a big deal in rural Mexico. The whole town gets up early in the morning and congregates at the local church. Mass is celebrated. Kids play. There is music. There is a carnival. And there are are fireworks. It is a huge social event that serves as a reaffirmation of the family and the community.

The video was of such a celebration.

As the shaky handheld-camera panned the crowd my amigos took turns explaining to me in too-fast Spanish who each person was. The narrative included intimate details of extended family ties, dating history, medical infirmities and more. These young guys knew more about their neighbors than I know about my own family.

As the movie transitioned to the evening carnival I became aware that these guys were an integral part of a very tight community. And right now they really missed their home.

After the movie concluded we fired up the CD player.

Vicente Fernandez is the King of Mariachi. The 77 year old Mexican singer has sold more than 50 million records in his career. He has appeared in more than 40 films. Chente, as he is known, is the undisputed alpha male of Mariachi music (and maybe all of Mexican culture).

The CD in the player was a more recent release titled Para Siempre (For Always). From the very first bittersweet guitar notes of the first song, La Derrota (The Defeat) mis amigos Mexicanos went into a full-on emote. The homesickness mixed with beer and we all sang along at full volume to Chente’s story of betrayal and regret.

I couldn’t help but think of the old Elmore James blues classic The Sky is Crying.

You don’t have to look far to find more examples of Mariachi-as-Blues. One very popular Mariachi song is called La Vida No Vale Nada en Guanajuato. Loosely translated it means In Guanajuato Living is Not Really Worth Doing. Hardly uplifting material.

Perhaps the most famous Mariachi song of all time is El Rey (The King). Here is a loose translation of the lyrics:

I know well that I am on the outside
But the day that I die
I know that you will cry
And cry, cry, cry and cry
You will say that you didn’t love me
But you are going to be sad
And that is how you are going to feel about me
It doesn’t matter if I am rich or poor
I always do what I want to do
And my word is the law
I don’t have a throne, nor a queen
Nor anyone that understands me
But I keep on being the king
A rock in the road
showed me my destiny
It was to roll and roll
Roll and roll, roll and roll
A muledriver told me one time
That you don’t have to get there first
But you do have to know how to get there.
It doesn’t matter if I am rich or poor
I always do what I want to do
And my word is the law
I don’t have a throne, nor a queen
Nor anyone that understands me
But I keep on being the king

Muledrivers, loneliness, alienation and rocks that keep on rolling. That’s the cast of a good blues song.

I guess Papi was indeed a rolling stone!