I recently had the opportunity to visit with policy makers from the creative industries in Mexico, courtesy of the British Council. While I was there I encountered the mariachi which prompted these thoughts:
The cantina is so loud that you can barely hear the music coming from one band as it merges into the sounds of the other. There are three in-house mariachi bands here; a black band, a white band and a maroon band. Eventually one will come over and surround you and then you can’t miss it. Surrounded by murals of famous mariachi singers from the 1950s, the cantina sits on the edge of Plaza Garibaldi, the home of the mariachi.
They hang out on the street; they play on-demand in the square and they step out into the road, hail passing cars. They are waiting to be commissioned; to be sent off to play to someone, somewhere in this sprawling city for some special occasion or to jump into your truck and party with you. Imagine the joy of receiving a mariachi band on your doorstep; they are there to serenade you. How would that make you feel about the music and the person who had sent it? Nobody knows what the word “mariachi” means or where it comes from. I ask several people and get different answers.
At a large table in front of us there is a cell-phone addicted party of younger folk who resolutely refuse all the offers of the mariachi to play their table. We can’t understand why they’re here. But then an older group of local Mexico City residents arrives and occupies the booth next to us. They are in for a serious night. They order a very expensive bottle of cognac which they proceed to drink mixed with Pepsi-cola.
Then they summons the white-costumed mariachi band. The lead singer wears big moustaches and a military style costume different from the players. The players assemble but are spread out as they squeeze between the seats and tables. The singers and the violinists come and stand right in front of the table, the contra-basso player stands with his stately massive bass acoustic bass guitar, directly in front of us as we are sitting in the adjacent booth. The two trumpet players stand a little way away by the door of the cantina. It’s as close as they can get, but they’re loud enough, they don’t need to be as close as the violins which are the more softly spoken, classy addition to the band.
One of the party has a birthday this evening. Each time she chooses a song for the mariachi to sing to her, she is choosing to be happy or sad. She wants them to create an emotional bond. She wants the singer to perform the tragedy of the song. She wants him to channel the pure joy. It is not a dramatic performance of varying emotion. It is a commitment of intensity to the music. It is a statement at her very table, that this music is serious and real and that he will bring it into her heart. She chooses a sad song because she wants to cry. She knows that it is a performance. She knows that he is just a mariachi. She knows that he is not a character in the song. She knows that there is no role-play here. She does not enter the narrative with the mariachi. She accesses it via the mariachi. But the song is old. The song is traditional. She already knows where it is going. They have all lived with this song and what it can do; they have known its power since they were babies. The whole culture grows up experiencing their most intense emotions through the shaman power of the mariachi. The songs are tokens for the stories that they tell.
She chooses the song to match the narrative she wishes to revisit. The only question is how well the mariachi can perform his role. How far can he vanish into the pure intense stream of emotion he and his fellow musicians create? To send the mariachi to an object of affection is a common and meaningful action. He is the messenger. He is the voice of the emotion. He is the musical transmitter of emotions between people. He is their means of communication. I want to hear the mariachi channel the love that my lover is sending me. I do not fall in love with the mariachi but he changes my emotional state. He alters my condition by his singing. I cry, I dance, I am seduced. But the mariachi in his black or his white uniform is only the messenger. He is a worker. I recognise his role. I value it. I’ll pay him to play ten songs at my table. He creates the intensification that I am here for. I would not come to this table where he will come and visit, if I do not want him to play for me. And I do pay so he does play for me. But he is a cipher. He is playing out to me a set of coded musical messages that I have understood and sought out since childhood. He is like a doctor or a lawyer. He performs a professional service with complete professionalism – most of the time. Unless by chance one of his band gets wasted, starts putting his arm round the audience. Then he breaks the spell. He makes the wrong link.
There is no camaraderie with the Mariachi. Or there is with them as individual people, but it vanishes when they burst into song. When they launch into the music, the audience is transported too. It is not like being with the heroic individualistic pop-star. It is not like some idol that the audience worships. No, the music is timeless and filled with every other moment in life in which it has appeared. It is a transport into a collective experience. It is the emotional consciousness that the nation shares. But it is defined and personal for each individual, shaped by how they personally heard the music. It feels like nothing else. It is authentic despite the artifice of the performer. It is the vibration of the real experience that the listener holds in her heart. She does not disappear into some collective mist. She cries over the memory of her dead mother because the song gives her the permission to do so, which is what she requested.
Is this experience of the song at its most powerful and most personal, is so different from how we discover and experience music in the contemporary world of western pop and rock? Is it the reason why recommendation engines don’t work because they fail so completely to connect with us emotionally? The new music by a new band that I want to hear so badly is not part of some traditional cannon that comes already equipped with its emotional value and weight. Largely we don’t want that, except in the world of classical music. Outside of that world, in the popular music world or the contemporary music world, we are prejudiced against the past and tend to think that a single canon of traditional songs is boring, insufficient, lacking in change. Among this crowd, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for some new sounds, some new music to make us feel fresh.
In some ways, we don’t really use this new kind of music in a completely different way. We do want it to help define us. We want it to paint new narratives and new moods that we can inhabit. But it can’t have the power of the mariachi. By definition, new music has no heritage, instead it has a vibe and a newness that is what we look for. It might subtly allude to a retro experience (if we have the knowledge to recognise it). If it can summons up enough authenticity, then it might elicit a moment of sadness or longing for the past. But mostly, we celebrate our embracing its strangeness. We enjoy the idea of privately owning it; the idea that we have made a secret discovery. In fact, the music might lose its potency when we share it with others or when we discover that other people know about the music too.
It seems that this novel emotion of secret ownership is all about finding our own path in an utterly fragmented world. It is the very opposite of the mariachi. It’s interesting to consider whether, if some new music is good enough, subtle enough, evocative, challenging and allusive enough, can it induce such a profound experience of intense emotion that the mariachi can usher in. The answer is with our perception. We rarely find enough reference and enough authenticity of experience to make that connection. So is this authenticity possible without nostalgia or reminiscence?