The immortal legacy of Vicente Fernández in the music industry

Vicente Fernández in concert on July 3, 2004
Vicente Fernández in concert on July 3, 2004R. Diamond (WireImage)

Vicente Fernández, the last king of the rancheras, the man with that overwhelming voice that made it possible to understand that pain is sung, that spite is verse, and that crying is music, died this morning at 81 years of age. In times of reggaeton and Taylor Swift, Fernández managed to demonstrate until the end of his life that in Mexico, and in the rest of the world, he can leave after more than 50 years of career, but the ranchera in the 21st century has not died .

Fernández’s last great musical goal was last year, when the singer took the world out A mis 80′s, an album with 13 songs that begins with songs evoking a childhood (My Father’s Horse) and ends with old age (To my grandson). The album was awarded the best Ranchera music album at this year’s Latin Grammys, when Fernández was already hospitalized. The award was added to another recognition that he received in his last years when he gave a farewell concert at the Azteca stadium, in 2016, in front of more than 80,000 people, and in which he said goodbye to the stages. The concert became the album An Aztec in the Azteca, winner in 2017 of the Grammy in the category Best Regional Mexican Album. The concert was a quasi-mystical event, to which people from all over Latin America and the United States traveled to say goodbye to The Charro of Huentitán, a man who for generations marked the history of Mexican music.

“I like Vicente Fernández much more from the golden age of Mexican cinema, it was the time when mariachi was rebellious, wild, music for young people,” the Mexican musician and producer Camilo Lara of the group tells EL PAÍS. Instituto Mexicano del Sonido, about the man who went from singing in the palenques to filling the Azteca stadium. Vicente Fernández, in addition to being on stage singing Return Return, acted in more than 30 Mexican films, among which were at first Tacos al Carbon (1971), Jalisco never loses (1974), Law of the hill (1976), Mexican mischief (1978) the The gambler (1979). That combination of being on the screens and on the radio made him not only a singer, but a symbol that changed what it meant to be a mariachi.

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“I don’t know how much Vicente is heard on the radio today, but I do believe that many singers after Vicente Fernández are the product of the pillars that he brought to music,” adds Lara. “Luis Miguel is a good example, and Juan Gabriel is another. The moment came when being a mariachi went from being something rebellious to being something luxurious, to having 80 mariachis in full dress at a concert. It became a ‘bling bling’ thing. Vicente inaugurates that. Even that change later you see it reflected in the film Coco, where being a mariachi was already something super glamorous, something more Hollywood ”.

If you look at the history of Mexican music, there is not a single Vicente Fernández. “Vicente must be analyzed in stages, because with globalization and the possibility of accessing what is done in other latitudes, many changes came, at the same time that his way of singing remained as very typical of the people, very nasal, very traditional of what ranchera music has been, ”says musicologist Luis Omar Montoya, doctor in history from the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology and a member of the Conacyt Research System in Mexico.

Montoya identifies four fundamental stages. The first is in the sixties and seventies, when Vicente comes to fill the void left by the singer Javier Solís when he dies in 1966. “At that time the record labels and producers were looking for a substitute, Solís was the representative of the ranchero bolero, and at that moment Vicente Fernández arrives, the right moment to fill that space ”, explains the historian. And when another great ranchera icon passed away in 1973, Jose Alfredo Jiménez, Vicente “became the absolute benchmark.”

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In the eighties a new Vicente comes. From the ranchero bolero comes the ranchera that focuses on the migrant theme. “There were several Mexican singers who at that time, based on what the industry was looking for, evoked the issue of migrants, there were also the Tigres del Norte for example,” says Montoya. Fernández instead brings out the song The Orders, an absolute reference for those who seek to cross the border to the north of Mexico:

La migra grabbed me

Three hundred times say

But it never tamed me

He ran my errands for me

The blows that he gave me

I charged their countrymen

“This moment of his music is anchored in that collective imagination by the loss of a part of Mexico to the United States in the 19th century, and it is jingoistic, and it is sexist, and it reproduces stereotypes that were first spread in the cinema about what is the Mexican man, ”says Montoya. “That is a phenomenon in which it was not only Vicente but also Antonio Aguilar, a moment that is intertwined with the cinematographic”.

But in a third stage come the nineties, with the Free Trade Agreement of Mexico with the United States and Canada, when Fernández was at one of his musical heights for having released one of his most famous albums in 1989, By your damn love. “With the FTA comes a section in which the Mexican heritage appears as an export product to the United States,” explains Montoya. The rancheras songs with characters like Vicente Fernández then received great state support for the first time. “Vicente was already famous in the eighties, but the FTA is important because the State embraces him, many times the mariachis were seen in campaigns with PRI politicians, it is a moment that gives them state legitimacy,” explains Montoya. “That took them to another dimension, and one example is that Juan Gabriel was given [un concierto en] the Palace of Fine Arts”. (This morning the Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto, announced that a tribute to Fernández will be held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes).

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The fourth and last great moment is when the composer and musician Joan Sebastian becomes his music producer. “There they begin to experiment with musical hybrids and Joan is the one who gives it the last great impulse and relaunches it artistically,” says Montoya. From that alliance come their latest greatest hits, including the iconic song This jealousy with his famous verses: “I looked at you” or “Ay, ay, amor / Ay, ay, que dolor”. The song reached the top of the Billboard chart for Latin American songs, and in 2008 it received a Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Song.

“Many people tried or still try to imitate Vicente Fernández’s way of singing, it had a very profound impact on Mexican culture,” says Montoya, citing among many Pepe Aguilar and Pedro Fernández in Mexico, Slavko Perovic in Croatia, Pedro Bento in Brazil, and obviously to his biological heir, his son Alejandro Fernández. Soon Netflix and the Colombian television network Caracol will present a series inspired by Vicente Fernández, with Mexican actor Jaime Camil playing the last mariachi king.

After more than 50 years of career and earning the title of being the Frank Sinatra of Mexico, as Montoya says, “ranchera music is not going to die with Vicente Fernández.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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