One of the hot young stars of Mexican popular music, Pepe Aguilar was well established with more than 15 albums to his credit by 2007. The son of a pair of famous performers, he got started early, making his stage debut while still a toddler. Aguilar's style has drawn heavily on the traditions of Mexican music, particularly the ranchera genre perfected by his father, Antonio Aguilar. His own tastes, however, are eclectic, running from progressive rock to orchestral strings, and by the mid-2000s decade he had emerged as a performer who seemed able to modernize ranchera music without losing its romantic soul.
Pepe Aguilar was born José Aguilar, probably in 1968 (some sources say 1970). His family home was in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, but he was born in San Antonio, Texas, where Antonio Aguilar and his mother, vocalist Flor Silvestre, were performing on tour. It was the beginning of a life on the road that would come to seem natural for Aguilar. He started performing when he was three, and in 1973, at age five, he sang for an audience of thousands at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Aguilar family show was a standard feature of the Mexican touring circuit for more than three decades, circulating as far afield as Canada and South America with a Mexican rural-musical extravaganza that included such features as rodeo demonstrations.
Aguilar's schooling was largely the responsibility of tutors who accompanied the family on the road. He heard plenty of Mexican music as a youngster, and his parents' enthusiasm for opera manifested itself later in the full orchestral arrangements he favored on some of his recordings. Aguilar's older brother introduced him to sounds from north of the border and across the Atlantic. He told the online magazine Then It Must Be True: "Roger Waters and Richard Wright and David Gilmour, or Jon Anderson from Yes or Neil Peart from Rush, or Jethro Tull or many, many bands that I grew up listening to—they are who I loved, but kids my age mocked me."
Progressive rock inspired Aguilar to buy a set of drums as a teenager. Even though it was soon clear that singing was where his talent lay, rock styles continued to influence his music. In 1987 he released a rock album with a band he had formed called Equinoccio. And even his ranchera releases featured elements of rock percussion and subtly integrated electric guitars and synthesizers. "My Mexican music sounds the way it sounds because of rock," he pointed out in a D. Baron Media Relations biography. "I produce and write everything I do musically based in rock." At home in Mexico he accumulated a large collection of classic electric guitars.
Soon, however, Mexican genres came to the forefront in his music. "I went back, because on stage and as a performer, Mexican music really makes my blood boil," he explained to D. Baron Media Relations. "I was born in a Mexican family. In a very, very traditional family. So, even though I have that mixed musical background and mixed cultural background, I feel the most with the music I sing today." In 1990 he released the album Pepe Aguilar con Tambora (Pepe Aguilar with Brass). The music was in the ranchera genre—the traditional romantic genre closely associated with central Mexico's mariachi bands. Aguilar's voice, big and operatic yet with a velvety quality, fit the style beautfully, and since that release his career has been on a steady upward trajectory.
Style of His Own
Aguilar pointed to the influence of the styles of classic ranchera vocalists Vicente Fernández and Javier Solís in his music, but his sophisticated rock-influenced arrangements gave him a style of his own. By 1993 he had cracked the top ten on Billboard's Regional Mexican sales chart with Recueradme Bonito (Remember Me Well). His breakthrough came in 1999 with Por Mujeres como Tú (For Women Like You), released the previous year, which reportedly sold more than two million copies and spawned hits that remained among the most requested songs on Latin music radio stations for an entire year. Among them was the title track, which earned Aguilar a Grammy Award for Best Hot Latin Track. One key contributor to the album's success was the songwriting of the prolific composer Fato (Enrique Guzmán), who collaborated with Aguilar on several releases.
The following year Aguilar took home the Best Mexican-American/Tejano Music Performance Grammy Award for Por una Mujer Bonita (For a Beautiful Woman), and by the early 2000s he was a familiar name among Latin audiences in the United States as well as in Mexico. He became the first Latino artist to sell out the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Another notable Los Angeles concert was held outdoors at the Hollywood Bowl, with Aguilar accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. For the 2003 album Y Tenerte otra Vez (To Have You Once Again), Aguilar moved from Mexico's small Musart and Balboa labels to the giant EMI Televisa conglomerate. The album topped Billboard's Latin albums chart, and Aguilar was guaranteed strong publicity support for future tours and album releases. Fans began to refer to Aguilar simply as "La Voz"—The Voice.
Although he had been performing in the United States since early childhood and spoke English fluently, as of the mid-2000s Aguilar had shown no inclination to follow the parade of Latin stars who had tried to cross over to the English-language market. Bigger than any of his U.S. shows was a 2004 concert that he performed in Mexico City's Zócalo central square for a crowd of 135,000 people, and he divided his free time between a home in that city and his family's ranch in Zacatecas. A charismatic performer at six-foot, five inches tall, Aguilar was a television favorite who took home a slew of Mexican music awards: the Premio Lo Nuestro ten times, eight Furia Musical awards, and three Premios de la Gente awards. He made a few small film appearances but remained unenthusiastic about acting.
The 2004 album No Soy de Nadie (I Don't Belong to Anyone) was another milestone for Aguilar, as the single "Miedo" (Fear) topped Mexican charts for four months and became a fixture on U.S. Spanish-language radio. The mixture of rancheras and pop songs on that album (and on Y Tenerte otra Vez) marked a new direction for Aguilar, as did the increasing prominence of electronic production techniques in his music. The singer conceded that his older fans might not be on board with the changes, but he told Ramiro Burr of the Houston Chronicle, "I think we are seeing the birth of a new Mexican music. The other day I went to (Mexico City's) Plaza Garibaldi, which is the most traditional place to listen to mariachi in the country, and 60 percent of the groups playing there had a little Casio keyboard."
Aguilar won a Latin Grammy for his 2004 release Con Orgullo por Herencia (With Pride in My Heritage). The 2005 album Historias de Mi Tierra (Stories of My Land) snared him a third mainstream Grammy Award, this one for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album, and he performed on the Univisión television network's widely seen tribute to slain Texas vocalist Selena that year. The 2006 release Enamorado (In Love) made the top 20 on Billboard's Latin albums chart, and that year Pepe and Antonio Aguilar joined forces for the Pepe Aguilar and Family Farewell Tour, featuring Antonio Aguilar in his last concert appearances (he died in 2007). The Family Farewell designation might have been premature, however—he and his wife had four children, ranging in age from 3 to 14 as of 2007, and they had begun to accompany their father on tour. Aguilar released the album 100% Mexicano that year.
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