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¡Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay! Guitars, violins, colorful spangled costumes and big mariachi hats have become an indelible symbol of Mexico throughout the world (believe it or not, I once even spotted mariachi hats on sale at souvenir stands right outside Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa).
There are conflicting stories about the origin of this distinctive form of music and performance – one pegs it to the brief 1860s reign of Emperor Maximiliano (yes, Mexico had exactly one post-Aztec emperor, kept on the throne by the troops of France’s Napoleon III for a mere three years, and according to this theory the word “mariachi” comes from the French mariage, presumably because this style of music was frequently performed at weddings). Perhaps more likely is that the form has its roots in the efforts by Spanish conquerors to Christianize and Hispanicize traditional Aztec musical forms, adding European instruments and styles. Eventually the charro (cowboy) outfits became part of the mariachi tradition during the long presidency of Porfirio Díaz in the early 20th century.
One thing most accounts agree upon, though, is where mariachi music comes from. That would be the state of Jalisco; a 3½-to-four-hour ride inland at the center of the state lies the town of Cocula (current population about 15,000), which, as a red arch over the town entrance proclaims, is the “world cradle of mariachi.” The resorts don’t run day trips, and the drive takes , but you may find it worth your while to explore the town’s palmy central square, old churches, nice 19th-century architecture and, of course, the mariachi museum. Just don’t expect to see mariachis strolling around town, except on special occasions. No matter: Mariachi music is all over Mexico, from classics like “Cielito Lindo” to versions of modern hits such as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
Whether you’re out and about in Mexico City, Cancún, or Puerto Vallarta, chances are you’ll be serenaded by the dudes in the big hats at some point. Just to get you in the mood, here’s unrivaled Mexican superstar Jorge Negrete singing the classic mariachi tune of all time, called, not unsurprisingly, "Cocula."
photo: Gerardo Gonzalez