story and photos by Greg Niemann
The uplifting sounds and homey folk lyrics of mariachi music have become an integral part of the Mexican culture and history. Indeed, it appears the entire Mexican psyche is interwoven with the brassy and bold tempo produced by sombrero-clad men in tight-fitting pants, frilly shirts and waist-length jackets.
Visitors to Baja restaurants quickly become aware they’re in a different culture when, along with the cervezas, frijoles and totopos (chips), they’re treated to ear-splitting renditions of “Rancho Grande” or “La Cucaracha.”
Depending on the restaurant’s acoustics and size, the experience can range from a bombardment of the aural canals to a lovely, romantic interlude on a seaside patio, like at La Fonda, where strains of “coo coo coo, La Palo-o-o-oma” caress the waves below.
Mariachi is Mexico’s main contribution to the music world, and has entertained diners, motivated dancers and serenaded lovers for many years.
The origins of mariachi go back to pre-Cortes days when Indians played music with rattles, drums, reed and clay flutes and conch-shell horns. The Spaniards brought their violins, guitars, harps, horns and woodwinds and the blending of the cultures also brought about the blending of the music. One of those music forms was the mariachi, and as no one can agree on the etymology of the name, its meaning has been lost to history.
But the music has lived on, its modern form evolving in the Mexican State of Jalisco. Early mariachi groups there consisted of the vihuela (a high-pitched round-backed guitar), two violins and a guitarró (a deep voiced guitar, which took the place of the harp). Today, a complete mariachi group generally has two trumpets, six to eight violins and a guitar, along with the vihuela and the guitarró.
Forms of mariachi vary by region and include the son jalisciense, son jarocho, and the jarabe, a medley of dance pieces. (Jarabe Tapatio, or the Mexican Hat Dance, is a notable jarabe).
Whenever there’s a special occasion in Mexico you can be assured that mariachis are present. Mariachis often participate in the courtship process, and the serenata (serenade) has become a touching and uniquely Mexican experience.
Las Mañanitas is a melodious birthday song, and it is traditionally sung early in the morning intended to awaken the recipient. Once I helped a friend plan one for his mother and we all gathered at dawn in the driveway below her window as the Mariachis started their serenade. For my Mexican friends, it was another occasion for a party, and tequila and beer quickly supplanted coffee and juice. I’m glad I wasn’t a neighbor.
The Mariachis at La Fonda.On another occasion, I hired a Mariachi band in the Baja lobster village of Puerto Nuevo. This is what I wrote about the incident in my first book, Baja Fever: Mariachi music wafts through the now-cobbled streets as musicians stroll from restaurant to restaurant along with purveyors of freshly cut flowers and trinkets made of seashells. Leila and I will never forget that summer weekend in 1985 when we went to the village to hire a mariachi group. We were throwing a party in Cantamar about two weeks hence. Several groups of musicians lounged in the shade of a tree near the end of the main road, down about where a market is today. We were introduced to the leader of a group who would be willing to come to Cantamar on that date. We began negotiating how many hours they’d play, how much per hour, etc. As we were closing in on a deal, they proudly offered to let us hear them. We agreed. So Leila and I stood, our arms around each other, in the middle of the dusty dirt road, while this mariachi group serenaded us in the hot August sun. Quickly a crowd gathered out in the road while these guys just kept playing and playing. Their enthusiasm won us over. That we felt special amid a group of gringos didn’t hurt either.
Puerto Nuevo is not the only Baja venue for mariachis. They are everywhere: Rosarito Beach Hotel, Festival Plaza (El Museo Bar), Rene’s and many more restaurants and nightspots from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. Each spring La Paz hosts a Mariachi and Tequila Festival.
And in Guadalajara, Jalisco, where it all began, each September there is a Mariachi and Charro Festival, which attracts some 50 mariachi groups.
Today there are mariachi groups in such diverse places as Aruba, Calgary, Canada, Amsterdam and Germany. There are numerous groups in the United States, including the Mariachi Los Cabos of Salem, Oregon, which performs throughout the Pacific Northwest.
California, naturally, has plenty of mariachi groups. One of the most famous mariachi restaurants is the La Fonda de los Camperos on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, where two alternating bands have performed seven nights a week since 1969. A touristy place, diners long remember the loud music reverberating from both a balcony and the main floor. Traveling groups, like Mariachi Esmeralda (based in Montebello) bring the classic Mexican music to venues throughout the Southland.
In San Diego, the Baja Brewing Company features the Mariachi Del Mar. The group also plays at El Torito in Chula Vista.
In Orange County, mariachi groups entertain at Plaza Garibaldi in Anaheim (Mariachi Espuelas de Mexico), Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Placentia and El Mariachi Restaurant in Orange.
San Clemente also has an El Mariachi Restaurant at 1925 S. El Camino Real. While you’ll find a lot of dedicated patrons and repeat diners, you won’t find a mariachi group. There is a live harp player who provides pleasant background music every Thursday and Sunday evening, but no mariachis. It seems that too many customers complained when they had a mariachi group there. With trumpets blaring and a lot of “ayy-yii-iiing,” it was just too loud.
If you like loud with your meals - well, that’s just another reason to go to Baja! b
Greg Niemann, a San Clemente Journal contributer since its inception, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends and his newly released book, Palm Springs Legends.