Mexican culture and history date back to some of the most powerful indigenous civilizations of the pre-encounter Americas. Prior to Spanish arrival, the Aztecs already had a significant musical legacy, with the establishment of formal music schools called cuicalli. The sacred instruments and rhythms of the Aztecs still resonate today, and the Náhuatl language is still widely spoken throughout Mexico. During the nearly three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, Mexican music adopted much of Spain's regional forms, and merged these traditions with the indigenous elements that endured. The population also was a reflection of this mixture, referred to as mestizo.
But by the early 19th century, Mexicans sought their independence from Spain and began to embrace other European forms, notably the polka and the waltz. Following the independence period (roughly 100 years), the revolutionary period established Mexico's status as an independent nation, and paved the way for one of the country's most important and enduring forms: the corrido.
Developed during the early 20th century, the corrido is an epic ballad form that in many ways chronicled the events of Mexico's revolution (19101917), from tales of its heroes' exploits, to battles, crimes and betrayal. The Spanish poetic forms such as the romance and the copla became staple literary choices, and the instrumental accompaniment ranged from a single guitarist to a variety of small ensembles. In time, many of the country's unique regional forms would include the corrido as standard repertoire. More than 100 years later, the corrido has continued to dominate Mexico's regional music and given birth to the modern form known as narco corrido, with taboo subjects ranging from drug and human trafficking to illegal immigration.
Mexico is geographically large and diverse, resulting in distinct music from each state or region. By the 1930s, Mexican regional son began to flourish, showcasing the unique flavors of each province. What distinguishes each of these regional forms is generally twofold: the treatment of the text (i.e., poetry and its structure around the music) and the instrumentation (or collection of instruments in the ensemble). In the southern states such as Oaxaca, the marimba of African origin is an important fixture in what is known as son istmeño as well as the large brass band called banda, a result of the Spanish municipal bands of European tradition. Today, banda music has become one of the primary forces in regional Mexican music, often interpreting the son within the context of German-derived polkas and waltzes
Perhaps some of the more widely known forms of Mexican regional son are the son jarocho and the son jaliciense. The jarocho form comes from the state of Veracruz, which is part of Mexico's Caribbean coast, and demonstrates the influences of its Cuban neighbor with distinctly African and Creole elements such as repetition and improvisation of the lyrics along with its accompanying instrumentsthe arpa jarocha (harp) and several guitar relatives. A popular example of this style is the song "La Bamba," which reemerged in the 1950s in a Latin rock version by Richie Valens. Son jaliciense, from the state of Jalisco, is more recognized by the name for its premiere ensemble: mariachi.
Probably one of the most recognizable and distinct styles, this regional son features a combination of string and brass instruments, with the musicians themselves referred to as mariachis. Some of the most elaborate sones are virtually symphonic in terms of their length and complexity, and many feature distinct choreography as well. Other regional forms include son huasteco, son michoacano and the chilena, which was adapted from the Chilean cueca.
One of Mexico's more interesting musical marriages occurred with the emigration of Germans to the Mexico-Texas border regions during the prohibition era in the United States. The German button accordion merged with the Mexican bajo sextoa 12-string guitar commonly used in the northern regions, and the result gave us música norteña or norteño music. As the accordion-guitar duet expanded in the 1940s and '50s, a new instrumentation evolved called the Texas-Mexican conjunto, incorporating American drum-set and sometimes a saxophone. These groups initiated the so-called "Tex-Mex" fever pioneered early on by accordionist Narciso Martinez and singer/guitarist Lydia Mendoza, and later icons such as Flaco Jiménez. And what did these groups play? The standard repertoire for all norteño groups has always been the corrida and the ranchera.
The ranchera is a simple country tune, often depicting everyday occurrencesfrom life on the farm to more tragic events. Although not as lyrically complex as the corrido, the ranchera was everyman's music; it idealized the simple Mexican way of life for all people. In fact, the general term música ranchera has been adopted as a way to define the spread of this tradition throughout Mexico. Today, literally any type of ensemble, regardless of its origin, will play these formsfrom the mariachi to bandas as well as conjuntos. The result has catapulted Mexican regional music as one of the industry's most successful forces, and spread these traditions far north into much of the western half of the United States. Rebeca Mauleon