Yesterday, a humongous statue of Mexican ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar was unveiled near Olvera Street thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles councilmember Jose Huizar, who's probably related to me somehow like Jessica Alba because he comes from the rancho in Zacatecas right between the ranchos of my parents. The location was picked because, according to legend, Aguilar slept there three nights early in his career while he was trying to make it. Whether the tale is true or not, Aguilar was the biggest star in Southern California nobody ever heard of the past 50 years.
The unveiling of the statue was met with the thunderous applause of
millions of Mexicans (even if some folks couldn't get into the actual ceremony–but we'll leave that to reporters on the scene) and the quizzical shrugs of the rest of Southern California. Antonio who? Is he the one with the mustache? (no: while Aguilar did have a mustache, you're thinking of his eternal rival, Vicente Fernandez).
Is he the one with the funny hat? (no: while Aguilar did where
Stetsons, sombreros, and even fedoras during his career, you're thinking
of conjunto norteño icon Ramón Ayala). Is he the one that
all the drug cartels idolize? (no: while Aguilar did sing one of the
first narcocorridos, you're thinking of Chalino Sanchez).
the English-language media never got Aguilar–tellingly, the only
English-language media outlet that bothered to report on the statue's
planned unveiling last week was the Los Angeles Times' brilliant Reed Johnson (full disclosure: he once did a nice story on me, but I thought he was brilliant ever since he did a profile on the Argentine carajos Bersuit Vergarabat years ago). Hell, not even our brilliant older sister, LA Weekly's West Coast Sound blog, bothered with a plug, leaving it to us little wabs to teach y'all a lesson.
Just the greatest Mexican singer of his era, one of the few that easily
jumped across genres, and an underrated actor who acted in more than a
couple of Hollywood roles–let's call him the Bing Crosby of Mexican music save the child abuse, mixed with the plaintive voice of Roy Rogers.
Aguilar never wrote any of his songs, but the Mexican nation loved him
for his humility, his legendary shows, and clean living save for the
Let's roll the tape on his 10 greatest tunes. Those of ustedes
who know his music: feel free to include your own songs in the
comments. Those of you who've never heard his stuff: listen on…
1. “Triste Recuerdo”
This is Aguilar's most famous song (it translates as “Sad Memory”), and while Aguilar originally sang it backed by mariachi, I and most of his fans much prefer it in this version, backed by the indigenous tamborazo of Zacatecas, the home state of Aguilar (and I). As the title hints, it's a song of longing, of a man who messed up his chance at true love and will never live it down. Makes for great dancing–no, it really does!
2. “Un Puño de Tierra”
One of those great existential roars of fatalism that makes being a Mexican man so much fun. The essence of the song is distilled in the title: “A Fistful of Dirt,” what Aguilar says is the only thing he'll take when he dies–therefore, “ahi que darle gusto al gusto/la vida pronto se acaba” (“let's give joy to joy/life ends quickly). With the brassy bravado of banda sinaloense, Aguilar gives the Truth to his audience–downright Sartrean.
3. “Paso del Norte”
Long before Mexican musicians decided to do mash-ups of the country's distinctive regional genres, Aguilar did it in this touching song about a man migrating to los Estados Unidos to look for work. In the song, the reedy accordion signifies the borderlands, as conjunto norteño in those days would've only been listened to in those regions. One of the few songs guaranteed to make a Mexican father cry. That one and…
4. “Que Falta Me Hace Mi Padre”
Roughly translated as “How I Miss My Father,” it reminds me of that line Chris Rock said about how moms got “I'll Always Love My Mama” written about them while dads got “Papa Was a Rollin' Stone.” This song is the opposite, a waltz-dirge (almost sounds like Italian funeral music) dedicated to a wonderful father who made the man singing the song the good man he is today. Various versions exist of the song, but this is the best one, recorded live with the legendary Banda El Recodo. They were also the band that backed Aguilar on…
5. “Lamberto Quintero”
Aguilar was not a pure goody two-shoes, mind you. He was the first major singer to record a narcocorrido, a song celebrating the drug trade. But instead of sinking to the horror-show pendejadas that today's singers wallow in, “Lamberto Quintero” is one giant wink, with that awesome line when Quintero's friend noticed a truck was following them: a smiling Quintero said “Pa' que son las metralletas?” (“What are machine guns for?”). This song swings with so much swagger, it makes “Mack the Knife” seem as badass as “Dominique.”
6. “Gabino Barrera”
Aguilar was the best modern-day singer of the corrido, that centuries-old art form celebrating the exploits of men good and evil. His most famous one was the title song for one of his most famous movies, in which he played the aforementioned Barrera, a mythical Mexican Revolution-era figure whose drinking and womanizing got him in the end. It's the corrido form at its finest, praising the man for his various sins, but warning the audience of such a life, as he gets assassinated in the end.
7. “Caballo Prieto Azabache”
One of my earliest memories was going to the Anaheim Convention Center and seeing Aguilar's legendary show. It just wasn't him singing, but also his sons Pepe and Antonio, Jr. (who would become stars in their own right), his wife Flor Silvestre, and his dancing horses (thank God PETA doesn't pay attention to Mexicans–although Aguilar treated his horses humanely, you can just imagine their furor). Aguilar loved horses so much that he recorded TWO albums devoted to them; this song (roughly translated as “Jet-Black Horse”) is his most famous, a remembrance to a horse that died in action. MUCH better than Spielberg's lame War Horse film.
8. “El Día de San Juan”
While Aguilar sang many songs of womanizing, his marriage to Silvestre was legendary in its honest-to-goodness love–think Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. That's why it's a bit ironic that their most famous duet is this infamous corrido, in which a woman dances with her lover, only to have her husband shoot them both dead.
9. “Ay Chabela”
This is not one of my favorite Aguilar tracks, but it does a great job of showing off another of Aguilar's talents–the comedy song. Sure, it's about a woman who doesn't want him, but it doesn't stop Aguilar from sighing and whistling and laughing and hiccuping and just generally having a jolly old time with what could've been a straightforward song. Even worked in a Cleopatra joke and funeral music, for chrissakes!
10. “La Malagueña”
Aguilar started off as a bolero singer, but largely abandoned the form as he realized the Mexican nation wanted him to sing regional music. Nevertheless, the man could bust one out when he needed to, and here he is singing the hardest bolero of them all: the huapango that makes mince meat out of all vocal chords with its leaping falsettos.
I can go ON with this list, but I'll stop here: I gotta go back to the Navel Gazing and expose more pedophiles and skinheads…