Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán

by Jonathan Clark

In the southern part of the Mexican state of Jalisco, two hours drive south of Guadalajara, lies the village of Tecalitlán, which in indigenous language means “land of stone houses.” To the north the town is bordered by the Cerro de la Cruz (Mountain of the Cross) named for a cross which villagers believe protects them from passing hurricanes and other natural disasters; to the south two volcanoes may be seen in the distance, one of them still active and smoking. Tecalitlán is a typical agricultural and cattle ranching village which is distinguished from other towns of the region mainly by its fame as the birthplace of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Mexico’s most famous mariachi group.

The origin of the word “mariachi” has been a subject of controversy. Legend erroneously has it that mariachi is a corruption of the French word mariage . The popular belief is that during their occupation of Mexico in the 19th century, the French contracted the services of local musical groups for weddings, thus giving them their name. Scholars have long disagreed with this explanation, insisting the word was of indigenous origin and that any similarity with the French word was mere coincidence. However, because there was no concrete proof to support either theory, the controversy continued for decades until the discovery of an important document in 1981.

In a letter to his bishop dated 1852, Father Cosme Santa Anna denounced the drunkenness, gambling, and disorderly conduct associated with the mariachis across from his church in Rosamorada, Nayarit. The priest described his attempts to stop the festivities and how he personally took the instruments away from the musicians! This was the first historical evidence that the word mariachi was in use before the French invasion of Mexico in the 1860s. Shortly after its discovery, the text of this document was published in Mexico City and Los Angeles, and should have laid to rest the mariage theory once and for all. However, old myths die hard, and the public at large and most mariachi musicians themselves continue believing that this uniquely Mexican music owes its name to a foreign source.

What is a mariachi? To 19th century residents of the region surrounding Tecalitlán, a mariachi was a musical ensemble consisting of violin, harp, and guitarra de golpe (a 5-string guitar variant). Silvestre Vargas (1901-1985) spoke of Plácido Rebolledo, who in 1840 led a mariachi comprised of those instruments in Tecalitlán. Don Silvestre would relate how his own father, Gaspar Vargas, formed his mariachi there in 1898, utilizing the same instrumentation, one similar to that of the conjunto de arpa (arpa grande) found in the neighboring state of Michoacán today (see Arhoolie LP/Cassette 3024: Los Campesinos de Michoacán).

The original members of Mariachi Vargas were: Gaspar Vargas (guitarra de golpe), Manuel Mendoza (harp), Refugio Hernández (violin) and Lino Quintero (violin). The quartet achieved regional fame primarily due to the virtuosity of Mendoza and Gaspar Vargas. In 1921 Silvestre Vargas entered his father’s mariachi playing violin. By the end of the decade the group had grown to five members with the addition of violinist Nicolás Torres.

Around 1931, Gaspar Vargas’ mariachi was contracted to play for several weeks in Tijuana, Baja California where race tracks, gambling, and liquor (not available in the US during Prohibition) attracted tourists from both sides of the border. Prior to the Tijuana tour, the group had always performed in ordinary clothes, but on this trip they wore a uniform for the first time. It consisted of loose-fitting white cotton muslin pants with a red sash for a belt, a muslin shirt tied at the waist, straw sombreros, and a red bandanna around the neck. This was traditional garb for Indians and peasants of Jalisco. Silvestre Vargas later stated that although the group would have preferred more formal attire, this was the best uniform they could afford at the time.

By 1932, Silvestre Vargas had taken over the leadership of the mariachi from his father and had begun to expand and reorganize it. That year, he recruited the services of the Quintero brothers: Rafael (violin) and Jerónimo (guitar). The two brothers, who had played with regional string bands known as orquestas de cuerda, introduced new repertoire to Mariachi Vargas, thereby expanding its potential clientele and audience.

In 1933, violinist Santiago Torres became the eighth member of the group. Trinidad Olivera switched from violin to guitarrón (a variety of acoustic bass guitar), reinforcing the bass line which up until then had been carried by the harp alone. The guitarrón was at that time uncommon in Tecalitlán, being associated with the Cocula region (see notes to Arhoolie 7011: Mariachi Coculense). In October of 1933 Mariachi Vargas participated in a mariachi contest held in Guadalajara. Most of the competing groups had added extra musicians for the event and some included a trumpet or other wind instrument. Many donned elegant charro uniforms similar to those worn by mariachis today. Mariachi Vargas, performing with its normal personnel, was possibly the smallest and most modestly dressed group to compete that day. Probably no one was more surprised than they when the judges awarded them first place.

Shortly after their triumph in Guadalajara, Mariachi Vargas traveled to Mexico City, performing at the inaugural ceremony of President Lázaro Cárdenas. The post-revolutionary political climate of Mexico City of the 1930s was favorable to any vernacular Mexican music, and Lázaro Cárdenas used mariachis in his successful presidential campaign. Mariachis were well-received at public and private political functions, but to the general public they remained little more than a novelty. Aside from government agencies, virtually the only paying customers for mariachi music in Mexico City were natives of Jalisco and surrounding states, and there was already competition for that limited clientele.

By 1934, mariachi leaders Concho Andrade and Cirilo Marmolejo (Arhoolie 7011) had already been in Mexico City for more than a decade, and half a dozen other groups were playing in and outside of Plaza Garibaldi. The mariachi in vogue was Mariachi Tapatío (Arhoolie 7012), led by Cirilo’s nephew, José Marmolejo. Mariachi Tapatío accompanied the best ranchera singers, played on the most prestigious radio stations, and made the most films and recordings of that era. Silvestre Vargas found it difficult to get his “foot in the door,” with such formidable competition. Persevering, he was finally given the opportunity to do a fifteen-minute live radio broadcast once every two weeks on station XEB, and he eventually got on the powerful XEW. In 1934 Mariachi Vargas participated in a mariachi competition in Mexico City similar to the one held in Guadalajara, and again won first place. However, they were not an overnight success, and making enough money to survive was a challenge. Thanks to President Cárdenas, Mariachi Vargas obtained employment as an official musical group with the Mexico City Police Department -- a position they would hold for 20 years. Silvestre Vargas later expressed that had it not been for this modest salary which sustained them through difficult times, he and his companions probably would have returned to Tecalitlán.

The 1936 film Allá en el Rancho Grande marked the beginning of the era of the Mexican charro film, which had its counterpart in the American western movie. By the 1940s production of these films would reach fever pitch and most of them included a mariachi. The 1937 film Así es mi Tierra was the first of almost 200 motion pictures that Mariachi Vargas would eventually appear in.

According to Silvestre Vargas, the group also made its first records in 1937. Two titles from that first session for the Peerless company are included in this collection. In 1938 Vargas signed with RCA Victor Mexicana and the group, now known as Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, joined that company’s impressive roster of exclusive artists. During this period they made their immortal recordings accompanying Lucha Reyes, still without a trumpet.

Silvestre Vargas spoke of a cornetist playing briefly with his father’s group around 1914, and trumpet players did perform sporadically with Mariachi Vargas during the late 1930s. However, Silvestre wanted to keep his mariachi strictly a string ensemble, and he resisted the addition of the trumpet for as long as he could. Nevertheless, by the 1940s the trumpet had become so popular in mariachi groups that public opinion forced Vargas to add one, and in 1941 Miguel Martínez became Mariachi Vargas’ first permanent trumpet player.

While Jesús Salazar of the Mariachi Tapatío (Arhoolie 7012) might be considered the father of the mariachi trumpet, it was Miguel Martínez who brought the instrument to its maximum expression within the genre and marked the standard by which all future performances would be judged. This collection contains some of the finest examples of mariachi trumpet playing ever recorded, with a tone and phrasing unequaled to this day.

The trumpet made the mariachi more versatile, increased its projection, and allowed it to interpret repertoire not previously possible. However, the trumpet also added a factor of confusion, and early groups using that instrument were not able to take full advantage of its potential. Now, with two distinct melodic instruments in the ensemble, there was little consensus as to who would play what and when. The results were sometimes chaotic, sometimes monotonous.

In 1944 Rubén Fuentes joined Mariachi Vargas as a violinist, later becoming its musical director and arranger. Manuel Esperón had been successful with his arrangements for singer Jorge Negrete, but it was Rubén Fuentes who best captured the traditional musical essence of the mariachi and established the relationship between the instruments to which virtually all groups conform today.

Many of the rural characteristics originally associated with mariachi music were lost or modified as it became urbanized and acquired increasing levels of sophistication. However, these very changes enabled the mariachi to become more than an obscure regional folk ensemble and to secure a prominent place within the context of Mexican, and eventually, world music.

A contrasting case in point is the conjunto de arpa or arpa grande of Michoacán, so similar to the early mariachis that it might be considered a prototype. While the mariachi evolved greatly during this century, the conjunto de arpa grande remains virtually unchanged. Not coincidentally, arpa grande music has never had much acceptance outside its immediate geographical region. The same would probably be true of the mariachi today, had it not embraced changes.

In the mid-1950s, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán became synonymous with El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo (The World’s Greatest Mariachi). This slogan, originally conceived as advertising hype by RCA Victor, turned out not to be idle boast or exaggeration, as the group would confirm over subsequent decades.

In 1988-89, Mariachi Vargas accompanied Linda Ronstadt on her historic Canciones de mi Padre tour. Mariachi Vargas had toured the US for many decades, but this time they played for new audiences, in different venues, and in cities where they had not appeared before. Introducing mariachi music to a non-Hispanic audience on an unprecedented scale, Ronstadt has been instrumental in creating a new audience for this music, and her two albums of straightforward ranchera music with Mariachi Vargas have been well received.

Although today there is no longer a Vargas in the group, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, under the direction of Pepe Martínez, is going strong in Mexico City, and Rubén Fuentes continues to play an active role in the organization. The group performs frequently at the growing number of mariachi festivals and conferences throughout the southwestern United States. As Mariachi Vargas approaches its 100th anniversary, it shows no signs of relinquishing its title as El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo.

Mariachi Vargas was a relative latecomer to the urban mariachi scene. Other mariachis were already well established and organized; some were superior in many ways. Other group leaders were said to have had more charisma or business sense than Silvestre. Yet, virtually all those groups that were Vargas’ competition have long ago disappeared, and with them their regional and individual styles. Why did Vargas prevail?

Silvestre Vargas had certain traits that were as uncommon to mariachis then as they are today. A non-drinker himself, he insisted on sobriety, punctuality, and discipline in his group. All the great mariachi leaders were superior to Vargas in certain respects, but no one united as many qualities essential to success as Silvestre. His tenacity and long-range vision have never been equaled in the mariachi world.

Vargas’ unrelenting drive paid off, and eventually he was able to attract the best musicians in mariachi music. As the group became more famous, more demands were made of its members, and any musician who didn’t meet the high standards was replaced. It’s no coincidence that the roster of past and present Mariachi Vargas members reads like a veritable Who’s Who of mariachi music.

Although the Cocula mariachis forged the urban mariachi tradition, their style eventually died out. While melodically similar, the southern Jalisco style which Silvestre Vargas inherited was rhythmically more sophisticated than that of the Cocula or central region of that state. Gaspar Vargas’ legendary virtuosity on the guitarra de golpe was another important factor that made Mariachi Vargas’ style, particularly in the sones, inherently more interesting to the listener and inadvertently contributed to the demise of the Cocula style in all but a few rural areas of Mexico. A comparison of the recordings on this CD with those of the Cocula groups in this Arhoolie series will demonstrate this point. As musicians and public alike gravitated towards the Vargas style, the Cocula style slowly fell into disuse.

Silvestre Vargas was more of a traditionalist than an innovator. Had he had his preference, his mariachi would have never used a trumpet and would have played sones almost exclusively. At the same time, Vargas’ desire for success compelled him to make concessions to public taste. Finding it impossible to be traditional and commercially successful at the same time, what he achieved was probably the best compromise possible under the circumstances. Though they may not please the folk music purist, the recordings produced by Rubén Fuentes and his successors from the late 40s to the present are of the highest artistic order, appeal to great masses, and still retain the folkloric essence of the mariachi.

Today, mariachi music has become modernized to the point where it appears to have exhausted its resources and is looking to its past in search of renewed inspiration. In the United States there has been a recent resurgence of the music and a revival of interest in its traditional forms. In this light, the reissue of these "lost" recordings is timely. This collection gives us a glimpse of what today’s most famous mariachi sounded like during the early days of its rural-to-urban transition period -- when the music was still close to its rural roots.

—Jonathan Clark