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All great Mexican tales begin in a bar, and the one I'm about to tell is no different. In 1946, a penniless José Alfredo Jiménez arrived in Mexico City from his native Guanajuato with starry-eyed dreams of becoming a singer. The then-20-year-old bused tables at a bar, where he begged visiting musicians to listen to him sing. None took him up on the offer. But one night (actually, more like 4 in the morning), Jiménez persuaded legendary mariachi crooner Miguel Aceves Mejía to give him a chance.
Jiménez arrived at a recording studio a couple of days later, libretto in hand. Mejía asked Jiménez to play his tunes on a guitar; he confessed he couldn't play the instrument. Mejía grabbed a guitarist, who asked Jiménez what key he would perform in; he admitted he couldn't read music. An exasperated Mejía finally asked Jiménez to just sing.
The nervous man-child belted out "Ella" ("Her"), a resigned sigh about the one who got away. Then Jiménez sang another tune. And another. Four in total. "Without a doubt," Mejía told a Mexican magazine years later, "I had the luck of discovering the greatest composer of Mexico, and besides, he did it without knowing one note of music."
A recording contract soon followed, and Mexico's greatest singers lined up to record Jiménez's compositions. Almost 55 years later, his canon remains the best insight into the Mexican psyche, best enjoyed with tears, tequila and the mournful trumpets of a mariachi.
Jiménez's songs permeated and influenced Mexico's national character in a way no American songwriter ever did—the closest is George M. Cohan, but the Yankee Doodle Dandy's songs are now only heard during patriotic-themed days, while Jiménez's tracks are gospel for any aspiring mariachi singer.
He understood the contradictory essence of the Mexican soul—the drunken prophet, the weeping macho, the embittered optimist, the jingoistic twerp—and captured it with somber yet stirring couplets. Few Jiménez songs are happy, because life ultimately isn't; our only salvation is a false machismo. Even at the heights of love, everything is shaky—the saccharine "Si Nos Dejan" ("If They Allow Us") promised uncertain eternal love a decade before "Wouldn't It Be Nice" became every lovelorn boy's anthem. In "Media Vuelta" ("Half-Turn"), Jiménez brags to his woman that "whether you like it or not, I'm your owner" and that she's leaving him "because I want you to leave." But the bravado is all bluff—at the end, the protagonist admits, "If you find a love that understands you/And you feel that he'll love you more than anyone/Then I'll do a half-turn/And I'll leave with the sun, when the afternoon dies."
The man, by his own admission, didn't have a great voice—Jiménez compensated for a limited range with a shouting delivery style—and wasn't much of a stage presence when compared with his singer-songwriter contemporaries Agustín Lara and Mejía: the Mexican essayist Carlos Monsiváis once wrote that "the convenient and respectful strategy" in approaching Jiménez's film work was to "abstain in seeing them." But a half-century of Mexicans have picked up the Jiménez songbook and turned his songs into their own; much of Mexico's musical royalty—a short list includes Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Lola Beltrán, El Piporro, Vicente Fernández and various rockeros—started their careers by recording his songs. And Jiménez didn't limit his scope to heartache. He tackled Mexico's numerous song forms—boleros, corridos, sones, comedy tracks ("Llegó Borracho el Borracho" ["The Drunk Arrived Drunk"] could be the theme song for Balboa Peninsula)—and took Mexicans on trips through their country through soaring travelogues—"El Caballo Blanco" ("The White Horse"), a song inspired by a trip Jiménez took in a rickety white Cadillac, squeezes in as many shout-outs to towns along Mexico's Pacific Coast as Johnny Cash did to roadside America in "I've Been Everywhere."
Today, Jiménez remains as popular as ever—the Museum of Latin American Art will host a tribute this Sunday, while Mexico's biggest ranchera stars continue to base their careers on his songbook. And that's the ultimate beauty of any Jiménez song: adaptability. Whether you're a multimillion-dollar artist or a fourth-generation Chicano, anyone can howl a Jiménez song and possess it, feel every emotion that Jiménez felt while writing it and add another layer of pathos to create a three-minute biography that says more about life's terrifying beauty than anything before or since.
"A TRIBUTE TO JOSE ALFREDO JIMENEZ" AT THE MUSEUM OF LATIN AMERICAN ART, 628 ALAMITOS AVE., LONG BEACH, (562) 437-1689. SUN., 4 P.M. $35; MUSEUM MEMBERS, $25. ALL AGES.