Musical expressions in Central America and Mexico are very diverse. Types of music in this geographic region have similarities with other types of Latin American music but have their distinctive differences. For instance, the marimba of Guatemala cannot be compared to a charcarera melody from Argentine. Also, it is quite easy to mariachi for merengue and vice versa if one doesn’t know the subtle differences between the two genres. The wide variety of instruments, the varied aspects of texts, poetic structures, languages, and dance rhythms in the music of Central America and Mexico prove the richness of these regions’ culture (Campbell et al. 9).
Music tends to reflect the cultural values, behaviors, and surroundings of a given geographic region and its people. For this reason, musical traditions in Central America and Mexico have grown very diverse through centuries. Descendants of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans who settled in Central America, Mexico, and the entire Latin America retained many features of their musical roots and creative various blends of Latin American music. Latin American songs touch on various themes.
Mexico, and countries in Central America such as Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have many love songs that are passionately sung by people, often with lyrics expressing loneliness, longing, and unconditional love. Aside from love songs, music in the Latin American region also have themes of current events and history, such as the nueva cancion of Chile and corridor of Mexico. Some songs also try to establish a connection between the singer and the supernatural, such as the songs that Chilean female shaman singers sing or the dances and chants that believers of Afro-Brazilian bahia perform.
These types of songs are quite different from other musical traditions in the rest of the world but they are quite typical in Latin America. In addition, Mexico and Central American countries also have a huge collection of children’s songs, tribute songs, and songs of the seasons. Instruments used in the music of Central America and Mexico usually involve the guitar. The instrument is quite prominent in most Latin American cultures, especially those influenced by Hispanic traditions.
Artists from Mexico and other Latin American countries like Brazil, and Venezuela usually make use of the maracas, clave, and guiro to produce the effect they want. Drums are also very important in the music of the region and various types of drums are used for different genres. Melodies are usually composed of notes in the minor key and rhythms which are crosses of threes and twos. Native Americans are known to produce pentatonic melodies while people of African descent frequently employ syncopation in their musical styles.
Perhaps the best known feature of Mexican and Central American music is its ability to make people dance. It’s easy to dance to Latin American music, whether alone or in synch with partners (Campbell et al. 9). Over the years, radio, film, and television have popularized Mexican music to higher levels. Listeners worldwide are able to recognize Mexican music although they sometimes confuse it with other types of music from the Latin American region. The icon of Mexican music is the mariachi – a Mexican musician wearing a charo costume (Hutchinson 1192).
Mariachis are known all over the world to transmit the meaning of being a Mexican. This musical group can sing anything, from ballads to songs about the revolution, from songs describing bar scenes to odes to regions and towns. Mariachis are also popular for their uniforms called charros. A charro consists of a bolero-type jacket, tight pants with a belt of intricately woven design, and a wide-brimmed hat filled with ribbons, chains, and silver buttons.
This unique Mariachi costume is very similar to the simpler costumes that cowboys wear. Aside from the costume, Mariachis and cowboys also have origins in the same place, which is in Jalisco and other neighboring states (Kermecker 49). A mariachi band usually consists of three or four guitarists. Bands would usually play together for townspeople at gazebos or “quioscos” in the Main Square or “zocalo. ” Today in Mexico, up to eighteen mariachi musicians can organize in a main square and play any song that the townspeople want to hear.
Aside from the guitar, mariachis use instruments such as vihuelas (smaller guitars with five strings), guitarrones (six-string vihuelas with big bellies), violins, harps, and trumpets for the energetic accents of Mexican songs. The term “mariachi” could have originated from the French word “mariage,” which would make sense since mariachis usually play at weddings. However, experts today insist that mariachis have existed long before the French came to Mexico. The name might have originated from the Mexican word “mariachi” which refers to a small platform for musicians and dancing couples.
Mariachis can be found all over Mexico, but especially in places such as Garribaldi in Mexico City and in Guadalajara, in the Plaza de Los Mariachis located at the intersection of Independencia Sur and Mina. Visitors at these places can pay mariachis to play them any Mexican song they want (Kernecker 49). Mariachis can employ other Latin American musical instruments to play their songs. They can use the the marimba, a hugely popular musical instrument in Central and South America. Marimbas are xylophones that consist of several wooden plates of different sizes and thickness.
Modern versions of the instrument have hardwood bars of uniform thickness and tubular metal resonators that encompass six to seven octaves. Two to five players would play these xylophones with warm, mellow tones (Apel 505). Central America is a geographic region that is located in the southernmost part of the North American continent connecting South America to the southeast. A large part of Central America rests above the Caribbean Plate, making the region geologically active and the site of relatively frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Cities in Central American countries have been destroyed by earthquakes before, such as Managua, capital of Nicaragua and El Salvador. However, the volcanic lava from eruptions has made the region agriculturally fertile, enabling it to sustain huge populations of people. While modern Latin American music is recognizable throughout Central America, indigenous music in the region have received the least exposure among other types of music in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, Garifuna music from the Garifuna people of Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala has quite a limited audience.
Instruments used in this type of music include tree “garaon” or drums: the primera which improvises the segunda which produces counter rhythms, and the tercera which takes care of bass lines. Two wires are stretched over the tops of the drums to generate the buzzing sound that is typical of West African music. Other instruments used in Garifuna music are guitars, claves, shakers, scrapers, and bottle percussions (Nidel 291). In terms of modern music, one popular genre is Punta rock which is a dance music similar to Trinidadian Soca.
The standard ensemble to play Punta rock includes instruments such as synthesizers, brass, electric bass, and keyboards. The song “La Punta” of the Punta rock genre became popular in Honduras during the 1980s (Nidel 291). People in Central America absolutely love listening to the marimba. In Guatemala, the xylophone used is considered the national instrument. Marimbas of all sizes and styles are made in the country. Some models are designed to be played by a single player while others are so big that seven people are needed to play them.
Musical genres like the meringue and other dance compositions usually rely on the xylophone to produce the bass rhythms (Apel 505). During the later parts of the 20th century, marimba in Mexico became popular in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The instrument is also played in neighboring states of Tabasco, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and in the nation’s capital. Mariachis and other musical groups playing marimba are scattered all throughout the country but they are especially concentrated in Mexico City and Chiapas. In terms of performance, multiple players playing marimbas are more common in Mexico than single players.
In Mexico today, marimba music is mostly a regional phenomenon. It is associated with the southern part of the country and is often placed in the same category as popular music genres like jarocho from Veracruz, mariachi from Jalisco, and norteno from northern Mexico (Beck 9). In the state of Veracruz, street musicians called “ambulantes” typically play marimba for people. These musicians would perform and compete with each other for twenty-four hours a day in the streets and in buildings. The type of marimba in this seaport city is known for its sharp-edged and heavily syncopated style.
The unique characteristics of marimba in Veracruz indicate its Afro-Cuban influences (Beck 224). Mexican music is primarily of Hispanic flavor because of the imposition of European musical culture on the natives by Spanish conquistadors. In Mexico today, nobody knows what real pre-Columbian music sounds like. Even the type of music that natives play in Indian communities is noticeably influenced by the Spanish. African slaves though tempered this music by adding their own style to it. Mexicans are proud of these traditional musical genres, although many of them now listen to Western rock and pop (Hutchinson 1192).
There are many popular genres of Mexican music that are meant for singing instead of dancing. One is the corrido, a narrative form of music that’s derived from old Spanish ballads. The genre spread throughout the country as armies of the revolution roamed across the land. Corrido has since become a popular mode of expression for regular citizens and artists. Another genre is called cancion which means “song,” literally. Cancion highlights the romantic and sentimental aspects of Mexicans, and is therefore naturally languid and slow.
An example of cancion is “Las Mananitas,” which is usually sung to serenade people on their birthdays. Finally, there’s the ranchera genre which is a mix of Mexican country and Western styles. The genre was originally associated with the cattle men from the Bajio region. Ranchera featured prominently in many Mexican films from the 1930s to the 1940s and consequently became known all over Latin America as the typical music of Mexico (Hutchinson 1192). The Mexican Film and recording industry are powerful forces throughout the entire Latin American region.
They helped several Mexican artists to become household names, drawing fans and profit to the industry. Some of the most popular Mexican artists include Pendro Infante, Pedro Vargas, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Jorge Negrete, and the Trio Los Panchos. Songwriters and composers can also gain popularity in Mexico, such as Agustin Lara who is a prolific composer of romantic “boleros,” which are Latin dance types of music However, despite the popularity of these artists, mariachis are still the most popular musical groups in the country (Hutchinson 1192).
Musica tejana, Texas-Mexican music or simply Tex-Mex has attained a huge following all over Mexico, Central America, and the whole Latin American region today. The genre contains influences from various musical styles, such as bolero, ranchera, and cumbia. It is very flexible and can even draw beats from other genres such as reggae, country, rap, pop, and disco. Musica tejana is also known as “tejano” music in Mexico, Texas, and other parts of the United States (San Miguel 3). The term “tejano” may also refer to people of Mexican descent who live in Texas.
Musica tejana has been created by Tejanos to reflect the sensibilities of their fellow Tejanos and Mexicans. Tejanos started demanding that traditional Mexican music meet their sensibilities as early as 1920s. Early in the twentieth century, much of musica tejana was formed by accordion sounds. After World War II, Tejano musicians tried to adapt elements of Mexican music to their musical style. Artists incorporated female duet and vocal singing into musica tejana, which was previously instrumental in nature. They also continued to use the bajo sexton and accordion to produce their music.
Saxophones, and trumpets later known as “los pitos” or horn section, were also employed to create musica tejana. During the second half of the century, Tejanos continued to adapt Mexican music by using instruments such as guitars, keyboards, organs, and brass instruments (San Miguel 7). Tejanos have lived alongside Anglos for a long time and conflicts between the two races are discernible in the musica tejana that evolved from this relationship. Corridos expressed the historical conflict between Mexicans and Anglos in South Texas during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
According to experts, old corridos were basically narrative ballads that told the adventures of a hero and were sung to simple tunes. In many ways, singing corridos was a symbolic means to fight the dominant Anglo culture. An example of this type of corridor is “The Corrido of Gregorio Cortez,” a narrative ballad that tells the story of a hero who single-handedly fought the law of the Anglos and won (San Miguel 8). Traditional Mexican songs like canciones reflected the changes that occurred and the attributes that were retained by Tejanos in the state.
Canciones are composed of various types of songs, including: corridos, canciones romanticas, canciones rancheras, and canciones tipcas. The corridor and cancion tipica dominated vocal music by Tejasnos throughout most of the nineteenth century. During the late nineteenth century, the cancion romantica started to emerge and compete with other types of cancion. In the twentieth century however, the cancion ranchera attained a huge following, which made it the dominant type of song among Mexicans in Texas and for those who lived near the border (San Miguel 8).
Aside from musica tejana, there are many other musical genres that has gained wide popularity in Central America. One is cumbia, a Colombian style of folk dance music that’s considered to represent Colombian culture, like Vallenato. Cumbia is especially popular in Panama, another country in Central America. The region is mostly inhabited by mestizos who are people of European, African, and indigenous descent. The culture of the Azuero region located in the west of the country has come to dominate Panama.
The country’s preference for music such as cumbia is very similar to the musical preferences of its neighboring country, Colombia. The most significant native instrument in Panama is the mejorama, a guitar with five strings, which looks quite similar with the Venezuelan cuatro. The mejorama are often used by musicians in the country to play songs termed “torrentes. ” The most recognized Panamanian musician in the world is Ruben Blades who became a star in the Fania stable of New York musicians. Blades started his career with doo-woop but branched off to different musical styles later (Nidel 291).
While it is true that music is the universal language, the music of Mexico and Central America is still very unique in their own social and historical contexts. The mariachi of Mexico reflects the energetic Mexican people and their passionate tendencies. Dances with fast beats illustrate the festivity of Mexican culture while slow and languid songs show the longing of Mexicans for intangible things such as love, honor, and the past. Whether it’s marimba, corridor, cancion or ranchera, Mexican music stands out as among the best and most colorful types of music in the world.
Central America also has a rich collection of Latin American music, such as musica tejana, bolero, and cumbia. Each country in this region has a different past that is reflected in their preferred musical styles. As each style crosses and mixes with each other, the music of Central America is bound to get richer in the future. Through modern forms of communication and broadcast such as the Internet, Latin American music in Central America may gather more followers in regions far away from it.
The various kinds of Mexican and Central American music all have their own flavors and they must be preserved for generations to come. They contain the spirit of the Latin American culture and must therefore be listened to by new generations of Latinos and other artists and ordinary people outside of the region. Works Cited Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969. Beck, John. Encyclopedia of Percussion. London: Taylor & Francis, 1995. Campbell, Patricia Shehan et al.
Songs of Latin America: from the Field to the Classroom. Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 2001. Hutchinson, Peter. Central America & Mexico 2004. Bath: Footprint Travel Guides, 2003. Kernecker, Herb. When in Mexico, Do as the Mexicans Do: The Clued-in Guide to Mexican Life, Language, and Culture. Columbus: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2005. Nidel, Richard. World Music: the Basics. New York: Routledge, 2005. San Miguel, Guadalupe. Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.