An Interview with a Mariachi Musician
[On July 8, 2016 Marie-Helene Vachon interviewed Emma Vachon in Cobourg, on behalf of Violin Lessons Northumberland. The following is a transcript of the interview.]
MHV: So, Emma, what is your background and training as a professional musician?
EV: I started playing violin seriously when I was about eight years old. I followed the Royal Conservatory of Music course of study, completing my Grade X on violin. Then I was accepted at the University of Toronto and received my Bachelor of Music Performance in violin and viola. That’s my formal training as a musician. Of course I participated in other things along the way, such as music festivals and competitions, things of that nature. These activities really helped me solidify myself as a well-trained classical musician.
MHV: Basically, you are a classically-trained musician.
MHV: I see that you are now playing mariachi music in a mariachi band…..
EV: Yes, several mariachi bands, in fact.
MHV: Yes, several. So I gather that this is a very different approach than the classical one? Could you tell us: what are the main differences between mariachi and classical music?
EV: The main difference between a classical way of playing and a mariachi way of playing is that mariachi music, like a lot of music from the folk traditions, is based on an oral approach; the musicians listen to music and they play, but they don’t really read music. Now, a classically- trained musician is able to read music very quickly, very efficiently and very accurately. But with music from an oral tradition, such as mariachi, it’s all very different: you aren’t trained to read anything, but instead you’ve really got to use your ears. Even if there is sheet music in front of you, you always have to take it with a grain of salt. You have to pay attention; the key is to be listening and to remain flexible. The biggest challenge is to memorize the parts, to play everything almost completely from memory. So reading is not really a part of mariachi music.
MHV: And what kinds of instrumentalists make up the mariachi band that you play with?
EV: Well, the instruments that make up a mariachi band are, first of all, the guitarrón, which is like an oversized guitar, but with a large body and six strings. It is always played pizzicato in octaves. Then you have what is called a vihuela, which is a very small, five-stringed guitar-like instrument, which usually strums the chords on top. You could have a regular guitar in a mariachi band, but that’s a bit rarer. You will have trumpet players, you will have violins, and you will have a singer. That’s usually what makes up a mariachi band.
MHV: Do you have any percussion?
EV: Not usually, no.
MHV: The bass rhythm is carried by the guitarrón?
EV: It’s carried by the guitarrón and by the vihuela. That’s basically your rhythm section….or maybe a guitar if you have one, but like I said, that’s a bit more unusual.
MHV: And who plays the melody line?
EV: The melody lines are played by the trumpet and by the violin.
MHV: If you are playing the melody line with a trumpet, what sort of adjustments do you have to make, seeing as the trumpet does not play at concert pitch?
EV: Well, the trumpets don’t play at concert pitch, but they also don’t usually play the same lines as the violin. There is also a bit of a balance problem, seeing as a trumpet is way louder than a violin. But usually the trumpet is plays one line and the violin plays another.
MHV: They don’t play together?
EV: Not usually, unless it’s a big melody and everyone is playing it.
MHV: Who plays with the singer?
EV: Well, usually when the singer is singing we don’t play too much, although there may be a melody that acts as a countermelody to the singer’s line. Such a melody could be played on the violin or on the trumpet. There may also be a bit of melody that fits in between the singer’s parts, between verses, for example, or before the chorus. Of course the strings may be accompanying the singer, but then it would be a small, light part, perhaps played pizzicato.
MHV: In the mariachi band, do you play mostly pizzicato parts? Are there also long bows?
EV: You play pretty much every bowing style, although when the singer is singing your parts will be less elaborate. You don’t want to cover the singer.
MHV: People who are brought up in the mariachi tradition, people who are not classically trained, do they hold their instrument differently, like a fiddle, perhaps on their chest?
EV: Yes, they do.
MHV: And do they hold their bow differently?
EV: Not really, though they do hold it a little bit more like a fiddle player.
MHV: So it’s a more traditional way of playing….
MHV: Is it easier for someone to play in the mariachi way, or in the classical way?
EV: I think it would depend on what kind of a mariachi band you were playing with. A traditional mariachi band is more likely to be playing in the street, in bars, or in cafes, etc. When I was in Mexico City, I saw a lot of mariachi bands. In fact, there is a place called Plaza Garibaldi. There were hundreds of mariachi bands in that one, single space, and when you walk by they play a little bit for you. You are then supposed to buy a song; at least, that is the tradition.
MHV: Do you buy the song before you have heard it, or after?
EV: You would buy it before they play it for you, and if you like it, you can buy more songs. The songs are really cheaply priced, about one hundred or two hundred pesos per song, which works out to seven or fourteen dollars. Mariachi violin players tend to play outside, like fiddle musicians do in Canada; their style is usually more folksy. I have a good friend who plays that sort of stuff. He lives in Mexico City and he only plays in that style. He holds his violin like a fiddle player would. If you consider some other groups, like Mariachi Vargas -the most famous mariachi band in Mexico- well, their players are classically trained violinists. That is a very different kind of mariachi. They are always touring and playing in concert halls. That’s a completely different style of mariachi.
MHV: In the mariachi world there are two streams, the classical mariachi and the street mariachi? Can we compare this situation to classical musicians and fiddlers?
EV: Yes, it’s like orchestra playing and fiddling. But they remain in different worlds. The musicians in the Toronto symphony wouldn’t be caught dead playing in the street, or, well, maybe they would! (laughter on the tape).
MHV: Is the mariachi repertoire very extensive?
EV: Yes, it’s very, very extensive. There are hundreds of songs.
MHV: And have they all been composed for some time, or are new songs being added all the time?
EV: No, there are still songs being composed.
MHV: And do mariachi bands join up with other kinds of bands, for example, with rock groups? I know that in the world of Flamenco, there are fusions with rock bands. By the way, is mariachi always acoustic?
EV: Well, I’ve never seen any electric instruments used in mariachi music. They like to keep their traditional instruments.
MHV: And is it mostly men?
EV: In Mexico it’s mostly men, although now I think they are starting to accept more women players, which is great. So it’s changing. Certainly in Mexico City I saw a lot of women musicians, which is really good.
MHV: Are there regional traditions in mariachi, like music from the north, or music from the south? Also, is mariachi music strictly Mexican, or is it in other countries as well?
EV: Mariachi is strictly a Mexican form. They have different songs from different states. There are hundreds of songs, some from the mountains, some from the desert, some from the southeast, by the ocean. Some also come from the tropical areas. Also the costumes and clothing are regional, as is the way they are made. Some of the costumes are inspired by Aztec styles. Most of the clothes used here in Canada are from the Guadalajara area.
MHV: If you were to listen to a salsa song and then to a mariachi song, what would be the difference in the styles?
EV: Oh, the styles are completely different. The salsa usually has one sort of rhythm, and the mariachi has another (On the tape EV demonstrates the rhythms by clapping.) Also there’s always a piano in salsa, but never in mariachi. So if you hear a piano, it’s definitely not mariachi. Then, too, you always have percussion instruments in salsa, though you never have a violin. So the orchestration is completely different. In addition, mariachi songs are two or three minutes in duration, whereas salsa songs can go on for fifteen minutes. I’m serious! Then too, lots of salsa music- like Cuban music in general- uses electric instruments. For example, salsa uses electric guitars; it’s a lot more “in-your-face” style of music, whereas mariachi is more traditional. Basically, you can dance to salsa music drunk in high heels and wearing only a skimpy little dress. Mariachi is a more conservative style, with its own costumes and dress. Salsa is more a “party” style of music. Cumbia is a more like a Mexican style of salsa… well, I don’t know if any of this helps! Are you perhaps out of questions?
MHV: Well, not yet! I would like to know if mariachi is very popular in Canada. How about around here, maybe in Toronto?
EV: Yes, mariachi is very popular in Toronto. There are lots of Canadians who love mariachi. There are, of course, lots of snowbirds who winter in Mexico, and often they come back to Canada having acquired a taste for mariachi while staying in Mexico. There are lots of big Canadian companies, like Bell or Rogers, or the TD bank, that hire mariachi performers to promote their services. And of course there are the Mexican families who have immigrated to Canada and who like to hear music from back home. So, yes, mariachi is very popular in Toronto, and also on the west coast. Another big market is actually in China. When we were on tour in China, people were very taken with our costumes, especially with our sombreros! So, yes, mariachi has become a worldwide style.
MHV: Well, now I am out of questions for real, so let me thank you for your time.
EV: Well, thank you for your interest in this wonderful, fascinating style of music!