Mexico is a culture teeming with musical sounds from as long ago as the Mayan and Aztec civilizations themselves. From the time when only the simple beating of a drum filled the air to today’s Mexican pop rock, Mexican music has been a combination of Amerindian and European influences, changing from region to region and evolving as fresh sounds have been incorporated to create new rhythms and styles.
Although Mayan music remains somewhat a mystery, archeological digs have found remnants of percussion instruments, including drums and maracas, as well as flutes and ocarinas, suggesting that music was an important aspect of Mayan life. More is known about Aztec music, which included hymns to celebrate the deeds of great warriors and cantares that recounted glorious battles of the past.
While these pre-Columbian music traditions had thrived for hundreds of years, music in mesoamerica began to change when Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez landed in the New World in the early 1500s. Cortez brought not just soldiers and priests with him; he also brought Spanish music. And when the Spanish imported African slaves, the slaves, too, brought their own music with them. Soon the music traditions of Spain, Africa and Mesoamerica were mingling. Later, in the early 1800s, as the Mexicans sought independence from Spain, they started to incorporate other European forms of music, primarily the waltz and polka. The result was the Mexican son, the rural, traditional Mexican folk music that is common throughout Mexico today. The son is essentially regional Mexican music with each one of the nine sons indigenous to a particular area of Mexico.
One familiar genre of Mexican son is mariachi music. The word “mariachi” comes from the Mayan and Aztec words for dancers on a wooden stage, but today it refers to a band of usually eight players, often consisting of a three violin players, three guitar players and two trumpet players. Playing regional Mexican music originally from the state of Jalisco, mariachi bands dress in elaborate charro (cowboy) costumes with wide-brimmed hats. Once street bands that roamed from town to town serenading women, modern mariachis can be hired for all kinds of events, from weddings to town fairs, and are a favorite with tourists.
The jarocho is another popular traditional Mexican music son and comes from the state of Veracruz. Cuban, African and Creole influences can be heard in this type of regional Mexican music, and the arpa jarocha (harp) plays a major role in the sound. An example of jarocho son is the song “La Bamba,” the 1950s Latin rock hit sung by Richie Valens.
Jalescenses is a son that was sung on Mexican ranches prior to the Mexican Revolution. In these simple country tunes, the influences of the European waltz or bolero can be heard, and themes revolve around everyday life, love and patriotism. Today the Jalescenses son is known as the ranchera.
While traditional Mexican music sons are found throughout Mexico, other forms of music grew up in Mexico as well. With the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, one of Mexico’s most enduring musical traditions, the corrido, was born. These epic ballads originally detailed the exploits of Mexican heroes during the Revolution and are derived from classic Spanish poems. Performed with one guitarist or a larger band of players, today corridos often tell the tale of events, good and bad, that affect Mexican life, including stories of murder, car accidents and political scandals.
Norteño music is another of Mexico’s musical traditions and started with the emigration of Germans to northern Mexico during the 1920s. The 12 string guitar common in northern Mexico at the time merged with the German button accordion, and the result was seductive country music with a steady rhythm. Norteño continues to be popular in Mexico today and gave rise to another music form called tejano or tex mex, a genre often influenced by American country music or American jazz.
In Mexico City in the 1950s, with Mexican music bands performing covers of American rock songs, Mexican rock music got its start, and Spanish guitar rhythms may have had an influence American pop icons as diverse as Herb Alpert and Roy Orbison. In 1971, the Mexican Festival Rock y Ruedas de Avándaro held near Toluca became known as the “Mexican Woodstock” and scandalized Mexican society to the point that Mexican rock was partially banned. The music survived, though, and has splintered into Mexican heavy metal, hip hop, rap and other genres similar to those in the United States and Europe.