Mariachi music is currently at a point within its evolution where it is becoming widely recognized as a “parallel art music”—parallel to the other great art musics of the world, such as European art music (“Classical Music”), East Indian Classical Music, jazz and others—as opposed to its former designation as a so-called “folk” music. This distinction is important, since it implies a greater degree of sophistication, artistic merit, longevity, respect, and broader importance in this world.
Consider the analogy of jazz music: 100 years ago jazz was in its infancy, rooted in American Negro spirituals, work songs and certain regional (i.e. isolated) popular musical forms. Through the first half of the 20th Century jazz grew in popularity and spread across the country, with a number of immensely popular performers and composers writing and performing in a number of different “styles” of jazz (such as swing, ragtime, be-bop, etc.). Classical composers such as George Gershwin and Darius Mihaud borrowed from jazz rhythms, harmonies, melodic styles to create new classical music—though based on jazz.
And yet still, up until perhaps the 1970’s, jazz music itself was widely considered by the musical establishment as “informal” or un-structured, people quipped that much of it is “made up” (i.e. improvised), it is performed mainly in bars or night-clubs, many jazz musicians were not “classically trained”, etc. This was hardly a music considered worthy of “serious” study or being taught in school, but by the 1970’s the academic community slowly did begin to recognize and appreciate that jazz had indeed become a musical art-form unto itself, with its own history, performance practices (jazz improvisation is a remarkably complex and involved skill to master), repertoire, major influences, a large body of performers both professional and amateur, many widely recognized “virtuoso” performers, and a huge audience base that extended now far beyond the United States’ borders. Today, most colleges and high schools with a strong music program offer jazz band in addition to more “traditional” American music ensembles (concert band, orchestra, choir), while many colleges such as the University of Southern California have several full-time jazz faculty members and offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in various aspects of jazz music (jazz instrumental or vocal performance, jazz composition, jazz education, etc.).
Mariachi music today is at a very similar point in its evolution to jazz music 30 years ago. While still generally regarded as purely “folk” music, many scholars, musicians, students and mariachi enthusiasts have grown to respect the rich and diverse history of mariachi, have embraced the large number musical forms that are found within mariachi (huapango, son jarocho, son jalisciensce, ranchera, classical, etc.), appreciate the unique musical style and performance practices that have developed into the modern mariachi, and have recognized a large number of “virtuoso” performers and immensely important composers who have shaped this tradition. Many classical-music composers, as diverse as Aaron Copland and Silvestre Revueltas, have drawn upon mariachi music as inspiration for their new classical-music compositions—orchestral and chamber-music. A number of books have been written about mariachi in both English and Spanish, countless newspaper articles have appeared, mariachi bands exist in many countries around the globe and on at least 4 continents, and an enormous body of young students across mainly the Southwestern United States have begun studying mariachi music as part of their primary, secondary and college/university education.
The logical next step is the creation of higher-education degrees in mariachi music. The level of musicianship amongst professional mariachis has grown considerably over the past 30 years to the point that formal training is necessary to fulfill the need of qualified mariachis in the job market. As one respondent to a survey put it, the number of schools across this country that are offering mariachi classes has created a demand for qualified, credentialed mariachi teachers “far ahead of the supply”.
A questionnaire concerning the need for a mariachi degree was distributed to mariachi performers, teachers and administrators across the country. Every person who responded to questions about the level of performance of professional mariachi musicians stated that highly-skilled musicians are in great demand and very difficult to find. Every person who addressed the state of school-based mariachi classes stated that, by far, most classes are being taught by either mariachi musicians who never completed college, or credentialed “traditional music” teachers who know very little about mariachi music—rare is the combination of a fully-credentialed mariachi professional.
Clearly, the need for highly skilled, trained mariachi professionals and teachers exists throughout the American Southwest and in the