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Quiero Volver, Volver, Volver: Mariachis in Colombia

By Christopher Burke

August 2010, Bogota, Colombia. Avenida Caracas, also known as Carrera 14 (Quatorze), is a broad avenue that runs the length of a good part of central Bogotá.  These days, la Caracas is pretty rough-and-ready in sections, run-down in places, and generally blah in others.  But as a friend of mine here put it, la Caracas has ‘un pocito de todo’, a little bit of everything.  La Caracas was the first avenue to have the designated bus lanes of Bogota’s spiffy Transmilenio system, and the shiny bus stations that line the middle of la Caracas give the avenue a sense of progressive achievement that contrasts with the rumble tumble buildings that line its flanks.  And then as the Transmilenio is whisking you north along the center of la Caracas, right around Calle 54, just as you have noted a number of homeless men sleeping in front of abandoned buildings on one side, there on the other side of the street groups of well-groomed and festively suited men and women suddenly surprise.  Some sport guitars and others wide brimmed sombreros.  What gives?  Here on Avenida Caracas in Bogotá, mariachis?  And so many mariachis idling the sidewalks between Calles 54 and 56, shooting the breeze, dressed to the nines.  Aren’t mariachis a purely Mexican phenomenon?

Well, as it turns out, yes and no.  Yup, mariachi music did indeed originate in Mexico just as rock and roll did in the United States.  But it doesn’t seem strange nowadays to find rock and roll worldwide in a polyglot of languages.  So why shouldn’t mariachi music venture forth from Mexico?  Could it be the sombreros?  Well, apparently mariachi music did make its way out of Mexico, and did so quite a while ago.  Mariachis have been in Colombia for as long as anyone can remember, and Colombians today think of mariachis as …. well ….Colombian, very much part of the celebratory life of the culture, necessary. The Bogotá yellow pages lists almost a hundred different mariachi groups available for parties and celebrations.  One ad reads, “You’re feeling down, call us.  We’re available.”  It’s been estimated that Colombia has approximately 3,000 mariachi groups and more than 20,000 mariachi musicians.  They video and choreograph, and for your next serenata, they will bring the roses.

Your serenata might go like this.  You’ve messed up somehow in your relationship.  You’re depressed.  Somebody has dumped somebody.  And after a night of drinking to drown your sorrows, a lightbulb goes off, and you think Avenida Caracas, the way station on the road to reconciliation.  So you fumble over to Caracas and 55th, or La Playa (the Beach) as it’s enigmatically called locally, at around midnight and you walk among the mariachis crowded on the sidewalks.  You look among these robust figures and drainpipe tight trousers until you find some likely candidates to aid and abet in the recovery of true love and you negotiate a price for a set of songs that might repair a broken heart.  You may want to catch a snippet of song sung by your mariachis before proceeding any further as not all voices are created equal and your heart is at stake.  Deal done, you might pile into the van with the mariachis and cross town to the home of the cause of the anguish.

Now comes the tricky part.  The mariachis set up and on cue begin their (your) serenade.  Neighbors are woken out of their sleep, and the loved one has a choice – to appear at the window or door and intimate forgiveness with a smile or a gesture, or on the other hand to throw some heavy object, say a pan, in the direction of the serenata.  The mariachis have brought the flowers but that is no guarantee of success in the venture.  “Quiero volver, volver, volver….” (‘I want to come back, come back, come back….” go the lyrics of one of the most popular mariachi songs.  And if by the fourth song it looks like the heart of the loved one is warming, it might be a good idea to purchase another set of songs.

One theory of the arrival of mariachis in Colombia is that they came as a byproduct of the Mexican movies so popular in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Colombians loved Cantinflas, and in every Cantinflas movie Colombians saw mariachis and they were in love.  Or so goes the theory, and Colombians began to emulate the Mexican mariachis of the movies.  The more romantic story goes that in Jalisco, Mexico, in 1958 a Mexican master mariachi, Regla, fell had over heels in love with a young woman from Bogota.  They married, and Regla moved to Colombia, where in 1959 in a restaurant called Rafael he introduced the first mariachi group to Colombia.

These days, there are a surprising number of mariachi bars dotted all over the city of Bogotá.  At the Plaza Mexico on Calle 116, anniversaries and birthdays, Mother’s Day, and even Father’s Day are all causes for the blowing of trumpets and the big sound of accompanying guitars.  Perhaps the sweetest reason of all to go to a mariachi bar is to surprise your companion with a proposal of marriage.  After all, it’s hard to imagine being refused when your beloved is sitting across from you in an ornately decorated sombrero with a broad smile across his or her face, possibly a tear in his or her eye.  And meanwhile, seven mariachis are serenading “Amor eterno y inolvidable….” (“Eternal and unforgettable love….”)  Hard but not impossible to imagine being refused as the beloved’s tears may be tears of pain if it turns out that the love of your life hates mariachi music!

Meanwhile back on La Caracas, the mariachis mill about in the darkness of night, ready at a moment’s notice to offer support to the brokenhearted.  So take a quick look here as the Transmilenio speeds you onward to its next stop.  At Avenida 54 you will catch a small glimpse of some of the inner workings of Colombian culture, of one of the distinct components that make Colombian culture Colombian – mariachis, of all things!

Christopher Burke is a freelance writer based in Colombia.

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Posted on: August 30, 2010, 12:21 pm Category: The View From Here Tagged with: ,

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