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Mining the Mariachi King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you ask UCLA ethnomusicology professor Steve Loza, “Que pasa?,” the initial answer is simple: The late Jose Alfredo Jimenez is being pimped.

Jimenez is the most famous and beloved singer-songwriter Mexico has ever known--a man equal parts genius and romantic whose tear ‘n’ tequila-stained lyrics were drenched in a tragic reality. He spent his short life scribbling hundreds of brilliant ranchera and mariachi standards onto soggy bar napkins. Many of Jimenez’s songs were popularized through film; he appeared in many Mexican movies, and his compositions appeared in even more.

When he died in 1974 at the age of 47, the official cause was listed as a bleeding ulcer. People who knew him, however, say it was liver failure from excessive drinking.

But 25 years after his death, his songs remain the lifeblood of the mariachi songbook, and he has been cross-culturally likened to Beethoven, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.

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Maybe you heard “Tu Solo Tu” in the movie “Selena”? Jimenez wrote that. Luis Miguel’s signature songs? Jimenez wrote ‘em. And those tunes you tried to stop Grandma from dancing to at your cousin’s wedding reception? Jose Alfredo Jimenez, it seems, wrote everything.

Easy then to see why diehard Jimenez fans are objecting to a controversial new tribute album that features a gaggle of today’s hottest Latin pop artists singing duets with the long-dead artist. Jimenez’s voice has been lifted from scratchy old recordings and then dropped like gold into the middle of shiny new pop arrangements.

Though not all of the arrangements are duets, Jimenez is paired electronically with Julio Iglesias, Jose Feliciano, Lucero, Cristian and

the Brazilian group So Pra Contrariar, among others. He even harmonizes with telenovela vixen Thalia--and that, critics say, is like forcing the Hanson brothers upon vintage John Lennon.

The disc, ". . . y sigue siendo El Rey” (And I’m Still the King--a play off “El Rey,” one of Jimenez’s greatest hits), was the brainchild of accomplished Mexican producer Juan Carlos Calderon, who has worked with Luis Miguel. And though it has gone gold in Mexico in a few short weeks, Mexican music lovers in Los Angeles have responded less warmly.

At KLVE-FM, the city’s most popular radio station, programmers have taken the current single, a duet with Spanish singer Rocio Durcal, out of rotation after the station was flooded with negative comments about it. “They just felt it lacked respect,’ said Andres Ramirez, an on-air personality at the station.

To be fair, lots of people love the updated recording, which was obviously made in the image of the Grammy-winning 1991 Natalie Cole/Nat King Cole digital duet “Unforgettable.” Dan Apodaca, a board member with the Los Angeles-based Mariachi Heritage Society, said the tribute was “a great way to expose a new generation to the magic” of Jimenez. Even Loza, who specializes in Mexican music, admits to liking many of the selections, in spite of his initial impulse to dis the disc.

“Most of it is actually really well done, artistically,” Loza said. “Some of it is beautiful. It’s still an exploitation. But it’s a pretty good one.”

Calderon and other producers and artists on the album defend their work, saying it was done with the best of intentions. Furthermore, they say that every change to the music was approved by Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr.

“This idea came to me after hearing what they did with Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra,” said Calderon, speaking by phone from Veracruz. “I realized that this had never been done with anyone international. It was obvious to me that no one deserved it more than Jose Alfredo Jimenez.”

Calderon said the album was made to mark the 25th anniversary of Jimenez’s death, but said it was not entirely commercially driven. “This is a tribute, that’s all,” he said.

Oscar Lopez, one of Mexico’s top rock producers, was called in on the project, he said, to, “come up with exciting new arrangements and sounds for classic Jimenez songs.” Reached by phone in Mexico City, Lopez said that nearly all of the reviews the album has garnered in Mexico have been positive, with the exception of one.

“We hear the complaints here, too,” Lopez said. “A lot of the older people want to know why we added drums or synthesizers to the songs. But the truth is that when you look at his life, Jose Alfredo Jimenez was more like a rock star in his time than anything else. Mana plays his songs in concert. He’s that timeless. I think he would have liked what we did.”

Some Artists Were ‘Obligated’ to Play

Lopez acknowledged that several of the artists signed to BMG were “obligated” to participate in the label’s Jimenez tribute, but others volunteered.

At least one guest artist who appeared on the album is puzzled by the mixed reaction to the project.

“Listen,” said pianist Raul diBlasio, speaking from Miami, “you are always going to have people who complain. There is day and there is night, that’s the way of the world. But you have to believe me when I say that I did this disc first and foremost because I wanted to pay tribute to . . . the premier Mexican songwriter of this century.”

Guillermo Hernandez, director of the Center for Chicano Studies at UCLA, said that the disparate fallout from the Jimenez album was inevitable.

“It’s a good idea and a bad idea at the same time,” Hernandez said. “It’s good to recycle the music. That’s the age we’re in. Look at sampling. How can you stop it? At the same time, for a lot of people, Jose Alfredo Jimenez represents a golden era in Mexican music. His music is classic. They feel he is immortal. So they are the people who are probably shocked and disappointed by the recording.”

Hernandez said he is not surprised that the recording is popular in Mexico, where “Jose Alfredo Jimenez never went out of style,” but added that in the United States, where young Mexican Americans are seeking to reconnect with their roots, the album may be seen as disrespectful of the tradition.


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