MEXICO CITY - In the golden age of mariachi, thousands of music lovers would crowd into theaters and fancy restaurants or fill the Plaza Garibaldi in the heart of the capital just to hear their favorite tunes played on guitar and violin. On a recent evening in the same plaza, that golden age was a distant memory.
Roving bands of musicians chased down cars on one of the city's busiest avenues, leaning into windows to bargain over the price of a song. Black-clad musicians in cowboy boots then assembled ragtag groups that played out of tune while singers hoarsely belted out mournful ballads about love and heartbreak.
The aching music may remain one of Mexico's top cultural exports, by which the country is known worldwide, but its fortunes have fallen in its homeland, with few well-trained musicians and few decent venues to play in.
A new mariachi school in Mexico City is seeking to revive a music that has lost ground over the years and that sometimes seems relegated to commercial jingles and elevator Muzak. Called the Mariachi School Ollin Yoliztli, meaning life and movement in indigenous Nahautl, the school teaches folk bands how to play professionally while grooming a new generation of songwriters and composers.
"What this school will do is dignify mariachi music," said director Leticia Soto.
Housed in a former nightclub on the plaza, it's Mexico's first professional school dedicated to the genre. Eventually, Soto said, she hopes to offer Mexico's first university-level degree in the music. Another school in the western state of Jalisco, the birthplace of mariachi, offers workshops but not a degree.
The goal is to formalize a music that has largely been passed down among the generations, without formal instruction. Last year, UNESCO recognized mariachi as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the city has tried to protect that heritage by both cleaning up the plaza and helping set up the school.
Most of the more than 2,000 musicians who ply their trade at the newly renovated colonial plaza learned to play traditional favorites such as "Cielito Lindo" and "Guadalajara" from their parents or other relatives. Most of the players there can't read music and run through the songs by ear.
By the mid-20th century, mariachi music had become a widely popular symbol of Mexican culture, played by radio stations and featured in charro films during the country's Golden Age of cinema, from 1935 to 1959.