Hard hitting songs for hard-hit people. That’s Mexico’s ranchera music, the trumpets-blaring, violins-sweeping soundtrack to every south-of-the-border horse opera, a music that’s been prettified and tamed for romance and restaurants. But at its heart, these songs and the mariachis who perform them serve one purpose: to deliver raw emotion, and with that surfeit of pain, to provide release. Closer to the dark heart of Spain than any other Latin music, despite its Germanic gallop, ranchera is music to fall apart to, to render oneself a blubbering, sodden mass, music for squinting into the cold sober light of truth.
This is also the way Mexicans celebrate, with the music of Vicente Fernandez. For 35 years, Fernandez has been the voice of Mexico. A native of Huentitan del Alto, in the state of Jalisco, the home of mariachi, he made his mark in a performance he delivered only moments after learning of his father’s death. Through bitter tears, Fernandez, now in his mid-60s, sang, capturing the hearts of his countrymen and launching a career that would carry on the legacies of the great mariachis of film and concert hall, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.
Though his shoe-polish mustache and UFO-sized sombrero may seem risible, Fernandez’s voice is no joke. It’s a near operatic instrument that only needs amplification within the confines of the immense stadia that he repeatedly fills.
For Fernandez, the past few years have brought soaring heights—and crushing lows. His 2001 collection, Mas Con el Numero Uno, one of 65 albums he’s recorded (not including the 20 already completed and awaiting release) won a Grammy. He was named the first recipient of the Latin Grammys Legend Award as well as the organization’s Person of the Year. “It’s a real peak in my career,” he said before a recent performance at Madison Square Garden. “I’m very thankful, but I think that as far as awards, what’s really important is what’s waiting for me outside of this dressing room,” he said.
What Fernandez won’t talk about is the recent kidnapping and ransom of his eldest son, Vicente Jr., a struggling singer whose voice and looks are overshadowed by his younger brother Alejandro. Before releasing their hostage, Jr.’s captors severed his thumb.
Such pain counters the accolades, providing the brooding ballast it takes to deliver over 50 songs of loss and betrayal to an audience thundering for hurt, anticipating the pang of homesickness and the pricks of pride that go hand in hand with mariachi.
Following Alejandro’s well-received performance, Vicente’s voice sent the flag-waving audience into a rapture of applause. The musicians shimmied back and forth in their seats, their sombreros waving like a field of sunflowers. The singer made a covenant with his public
15 Grandes Con El Numero 1 (Sony International)
Recordando A Los Panchos (Sony International)
Mas Con el Numero Uno (Sony International)