You could say that Pepe Aguilar had no choice but to become an artist, and as an artist, he had no choice but to become a singer. For few times have heritage, talent and lineage been as intertwined as with Aguilar, a multiple Grammy nominee and winner who is one of the most phenomenally successful singers and producers in the Latin world. With a total of 20 solo, studio albums under his belt (plus multiple compilations), adding up to over 10 million copies sold, Aguilar is widely considered the voice of a new generation of Mexican music.
Born to one what may be Mexico’s leading artistic couple—singer and actor Antonio Aguilar, considered one of the world’s great ranchera voices—and screen siren Flor Silvestre, who also recorded 152 albums--Pepe Aguilar literally came of age on a stage. He was only three years old when his parents handed him a microphone, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, no less, and launched a career that has made him a legend at only 35 years old.
“You could say I was born in a tour because I spent my entire childhood in my parent’s show,” says Aguilar, who happens to be perfectly bilingual thanks to all those childhood years of touring in the U.S. “As soon as I could hold my mike and sing, I became part of that show.” And doing so, he became part of the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of fans.
But though Aguilar may have begun his career under his family’s tutelage, he’s exploded on his own, single-handedly spearing a movement that blends mariachi traditions and pop sensibility. Aguilar’s success—nearly 20 of his songs have topped Billboard’s airplay charts—has not only opened the doors for dozens of followers, it has also allowed mariachi music to gain a new, broader following as never before. Thanks to Aguilar’s contemporary readings on traditional music, radio stations that had never played mariachi opened up to the genre. Today, some of the top rated stations in the country play “romantic Mexican music,” with Aguilar as one of their pillars.
Beyond that remarkable voice, (“The voice,” is it is referred to by radio programmers), Aguilar is a respected songwriter and producer who’s worked with some of the biggest names in Latin music, from traditional Mexican singers such as Lupita D’alessio and Guadalupe Pineda, to young rockers like Julieta Venegas and Ely Guerra. An entrepreneur on top of everything, Aguilar has also launched two record labels—one dedicated to Latin rock, one to traditional Mexican music—from where he plans to develop new acts.
“ I don’t believe in a lot of things that artists go through to be in a record company,” says Aguilar. “I know I can make a little difference, at least in my environment.”
Maybe this doesn’t quite jive with the image of a traditionally garbed Mexican singer. But Aguilar, of course, is not your traditional kind of guy. This is an artist whose albums feature him in traditional charro outfit on a front cover, and chic New York black in the back photo. Credits invariably include his full mariachi, and a symphony orchestra. In his recording studios (because Aguilar has his own, cutting edge studio in Mexico city), vihuela and guitarrón sit side by side by electric guitars and saxophones. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, then, that Aguilar’s first solo recording was a rock album, released in 1987 with his own band, Equinoccio.
“I had a rock background as a listener,” says Aguilar. “My brother, who is eight years older than me, introduced me to music that I wasn’t supposed to be listening at seven or eight years old. Pink Floyd, The Who.” To this day, says Aguilar, rock defines his very particular sound. “Rock has been my inspiration and my best weapon,” he says. “My Mexican music sounds the way it sounds because of rock. I produce and write everything I do musically based in rock.”
Luckily for fans, Mexican traditions beat out (kind off), crashing guitars.
“I went back, because on stage and as a performer, Mexican music really makes my blood boil,” he explains. “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.”
Aguilar’s first traditionally minded recording was “Pepe Aguilar Con Tambora,” released in 1990. His velvety voice and distinctive interpretation immediately struck a chord. But his fame truly exploded with 1998’s “Por Mujeres Como Tú,” a collection of previously unreleased tracks that went on to sell nearly 2 million copies. The album’s title track won Billboard’s Hot Latin Track of the year and made Aguilar a household name. Two years later, another studio album, “Por Una Mujer Bonita,” won a Grammy award for Best regional Mexican album. A purveyor of new music as well as an adamant advocate of history and tradition, Aguilar alternately records new material as well as classics.
His albums have paid tribute to some of Latin music’s greatest voices.
1998 “Por El Amor de Siempre,” for example, is a tribute to the great balladeers of the 1970s, including Camilo Sesto and José José. “Lo Grande de los Grandes” is a tribute to mariachi stars, including Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solís, Vicente Fernández and, of course, Antonio Aguilar. “Because they’re the ones responsible for the history of mariachi,” says Aguilar.
And yet, the biggest successes in Aguilar’s career have been his collaborations with singer/songwriter Fato, who wrote for Aguilar in “Por Mujeres Como Tú,” “Por Una Mujer Bonita” and “Lo Mejor de Nosotros.” “There’s a lot of history between Fato and myself,” says Aguilar. “He’s played an important role in my career for the past six years.”
And that isn’t going to stop.
Aguilar’s upcoming album, perhaps the most innovative in his career, again features Fato’s compositions as well as Aguilar originals. The yet untitled album will be Aguilar’s third on his new label, Univision Records, to which he signed in 2003. In that single year, Aguilar released two albums: “Y Tenerte Otra Vez,” and “Con Orgullo Por Herencia,” yet another tribute, with a twist. “Con Orgullo” pays homage to non other than Aguilar’s parents, and includes 12 ranchero classics made popular by Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre. But, staying true to form, Aguilar will once again alternate past with future. Reaching out once again to Fato, Aguilar is looking for standards to create and call his own. But some of those standards will surely be his as he continues to expand in his own writing.
“From now on, there will be songs by me in all my albums,” says Aguilar. “There has to be. I need to complete the circle, and besides making music, all these years have given me the credibility to say something. But I have to say more. I really need to make it part of my concept. It has to be that way. I don’t criticize people who only sing. It’s just that I fee the urge to do more. This is my story.