Music of Mexico
Beginner - advanced
Adapted from a lesson written by Christopher Muscato
Music is a major part of Mexican culture. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the major genres of Mexican music and see how they have defined Mexico in the past and today...
The Music of Mexico
Mexico is a place of arts. From rich foods to colourful crafts to vibrant parades, the arts have defined Mexican lives for millennia. One art form of particular note, however, is music. Music is incredibly important to Mexican culture, yet Mexican music can often be hard to define. There's a simple reason for this: Mexican music is international music. Mexico is one of the world's first great international nations, balancing numerous cultural traditions under the Aztec Empire, then serving as the centre of global trade under the Spanish Empire, and remaining one of the most populous and influential nations in the world today. Mexican culture has absorbed arts from around the world, redefining them through distinctly Mexican lenses, and music is no exception. To understand Mexican music is to understand Mexican culture and history, complex as they are.
The Mexican Son
Remember, Mexican music can sometimes be hard to strictly define. Musical genres tend to be flexible and fluid, adapting and changing with every generation. While Mexico today is home to countless genres incorporating elements of Latin jazz, Caribbean salsas, American rock and hip-hop, and others, for now let's focus on the folk music of Mexico. There are three loose genres that stand out.
First is the son. Mexican sones combine Amerindian, European, and African traditions into complex rhythmic and melodic patterns. For this reason, we get complex meters like 6/8 time that predominate, rather than the simpler 4/4 (common) time many Americans are used to.
Son music has existed in a standardised form in Mexico since the 17th century and has been highly adapted and moulded into distinct sounds that are unique to different regions of Mexico. In its most common forms, however, it is played by large ensembles of string instruments, including violins, guitars, guitarrones, and Mexican harps. Vocalists present short and poetic verses, interspersed by dramatic and virtuosic instrumentalism.
Son music is highly regionalised, sounding very different across Mexico. A more standardised genre of traditional Mexican music is the corrido. Corridos are defined by their lyrics and present dramatic and poetic ballads of life, love, and Mexican history. As thus, they are often sung by smaller ensembles.
Corridos have been an important part of Mexican culture since at least the mid-19th century, and likely longer. For much of Mexican history, they were used as a common way to record popular history. Many historians today rely heavily on corridos from the 19th century, which recorded events like the Mexican-American war more faithfully than incomplete government records. The format of the corrido is still a part of Mexican music today, with many modern ballads embracing themes of immigration and drug trafficking along the U.S./Mexican border. Even today, Mexican music is never confined in theme or sound by national borders.
Perhaps the genre most Americans will be familiar with is the sound of ranchera. Ranchera music is descended from the sones of rural Jalisco, but is also heavily influenced by the tradition of Mexican corridos. Ranchera embraces agrarian themes, originating as a popular form of music on Mexican ranches. In fact, the original ranchera singer was a single cowboy with a guitar who became a national icon in the land reforms of the 1920s and 1930s. At this point, ranchera rose as a national standard and symbol of Mexican identity.
Many of the most well known singers and songwriters in Mexico are associated with ranchera. One of Mexico's first national musical celebrities was José Alfredo Jiménez (1926-1973), the man who did the most to standardise the ranchera sound and who wrote many classic ranchera songs. Pedro Infante (1917-1957) immortalised the iconic figure of the ranchera singer through his films and songs, and is often considered one of greatest musicians in Mexican history. Lola Beltrán (1932-1996) was the most powerful female voice in ranchera, setting the bar that redefined the genre. Juan Gabriel (1950-2016) was responsible for the resurgence of ranchera in the 1970s and 1980s, writing many modern classics and helping expand the ranchera fan base in the United States.
Like other forms of Mexican music, ranchera retains a degree of flexibility and fluidity. It can be played in either 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 meters, with songs either being polkas, waltzes, or boleros, respectively. It also appears in the repertoires of ensembles of various sizes, from the single guitar-playing vocalist to the larger mariarchis to the big-band style bandas.
Even though it is more standardised than other forms of Mexican music, ranchera is still largely regionalised, with some of the strongest distinctions coming from northern Mexico. On the southern side of the U.S./Mexican border, this music is called norteño. On the northern side of the border, in Texas, it's called tejano. Today, tejano remains a powerful form of expression in the American Southwest, where it has embraced traits of American pop, blues, and rock music, embodied through the works of Mexican-American vocalist Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Tejano music is an important part of Mexican musical culture, but one defined by existing in the United States, reminding us that Mexican music is always international in character, creating a sound that simply cannot be confined.
Mexican music is complex and intriguing, constantly adapting and absorbing the myriads of influences to which it's exposed. In terms of folk music, three genres stand out as most prominent. Son music combines Amerindian, European, and African musical traditions with short, poetic sets of lyrics interpreted through regionalized aesthetics. Corridos are defined by their dramatic ballads that have recorded Mexican experiences from the 19th century through today. Ranchera is one of the most popular genres today, growing first in rural Mexico and growing to define a national sound. Yet, even ranchera is subject to regionalization, most notably in the north where norteño and tejano varieties criss-cross the U.S./Mexican border and play with various influences in the United States. It's a musical tradition that is ever-changing and growing, and thus a pretty good representation for one of the world's first truly international cultures.