Many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around mariachi music; the elegantly-clad ensembles were always an integral part of family celebrations in my mom’s hometown of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and the raucous sing-alongs that inevitably would ensue were sure to include songs by Mexico’s Jose Alfredo Jimenez, the beloved composer and singer who became emblematic of his genre.
Like many mariachi masters, Jimenez’s passionate, over-the-top songs are designed to inspire potent, direct emotions — delirious joy, fierce pride, tender affection, profound sadness, brave rebelliousness, and por supuesto, the heart-wrenching pain of unrequited love. Now, thanks to a bi-national tribute album spearheaded by Camilo Lara of the Mexican Sound Institute, along with Sergio Mendoza of Orkesta Mendoza and Calexico, new generations on both sides of the Rio Grande can discover the indie side of Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s classic tunes. Just in time to celebrate the composer’s 92 birthday as well as his incredible legacy — Jimenez composed more than 1000 songs, a central part of the mariachi and ranchera canon — producers Lara and Mendoza have brought together a bevy of stellar Latinx singers from Mexico and Spain to interpret a series of iconic Jimenez tunes, all backed up by Tucson, Arizona’s Calexico.
Calexico’s cinematic grooves frame the pathos at the heart of Jose Alfredo’s music with southwestern flair, adding sliding, spaghetti-western guitar twangs and a lot of swing. At the same time, and paradoxically, mariachi horns turn lonely and lamenting, as Calexico adds their distinctive desert soundscape to the tunes.
Almost 100 years after Jimenez was born, it’s now the perfect time to toast with a tequila to love, life and his mariachi music made anew. With diverse representatives from the the worlds of rock, pop and Mexican regional each making one of Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s tunes their own, here are a few of our favorites.
Ricky Muñoz, vocalist from Zapata, Texas’ stars Intocables, adds Tejano rock nuances to “Serenata Huasteca”
Mexican-American diva Lila Downs, along with veteran Argentine rock-en-español singer and composer Andres Calamaro, shade “En El Ultimo Trago” with the just right amount of angst, as the singer asks (OK, begs) a lover to raise glasses high just one more time before they separate.
Taking on what is perhaps José Alfredo Jimenez’s most famous song, “Un Mundo Raro,” Latinx indie darling Carla Morrison sweetly promises to never speak ill of the lover who has left her, flavoring the ballad with an indie-pop nuance.