When you think of Mexico and its culture, what kinds of things come to mind? If you know a girl who has recently turned 15, then the proud tradition of the quinceañera might provide vivid memories of a wonderful party.

Some might think of other celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo or El Día de los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead. You might also think of that popular party favor, the piñata.

For many, though, Mexican culture and its celebrations bring one thing to mind: the delicious cuisine of Mexico. Whether you're enjoying homemade tamales at a friend's house or one of the many delicious dishes at a Mexican restaurant, the cuisine of Mexico has become popular worldwide.

Of course, whether it's at a celebration or a Mexican restaurant, there's one other Mexican cultural institution that's sure to bring great pleasure to the eyes and the ears. What are we talking about? The mariachi band!

Although the word mariachi is almost always followed by the word band, mariachi actually encompasses a musical tradition comprised of many different elements. In addition to unique instruments, musical styles, and singing techniques, mariachi includes unique dancing, clothing, and performance methods.

Mariachi dates back to at least the 19th century in western Mexico, where some believe it developed in the state of Jalisco near Guadalajara. Over time, mariachi has become important beyond Mexico's borders. In 2011, for example, UNESCO recognized mariachi as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The origin of the term mariachi is somewhat unclear. Many people believe it derives from the French word mariage, since mariachi bands would often play at weddings. However, researchers have discovered that the word was in use in Mexico before the French ever arrived. Today, the most popular theory holds that it derives from a native word for a particular tree whose wood is used to make both instruments and the platforms on which musicians perform.

Today, mariachi bands usually feature at least four musicians (and often as many as a dozen or more). Traditional mariachi instruments include the violin, guitar, guitarrón (a large bass guitar), and vihuela (a small five-string guitar with a round back). Modern mariachi bands usually also include trumpets and sometimes harps.

It's easy to recognize mariachi bands because of the traditional charro suits that they wear to perform. Consisting of waist-length jackets, bow ties, fitted pants, boots, and sombreros, charro suits usually contain elaborate decorations and intricate embroidery.

In addition to playing in restaurants occasionally, you can often find mariachi bands strolling through the crowds at festivals and celebrations. Their songs often cover topics such as love, betrayal, death, heroes, and even animals ("La Cucaracha" or "The Cockroach" is particularly famous). Since mariachi bands are expected to play songs requested by the crowd, mariachi bands often need to know hundreds of different songs!

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