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Aguilar: The man who reinvented ranchera

Walk of Fame Honors: Pepe Aguilar

Within the conservative field of regional Mexican music, Pepe Aguilar is a ranchera superstar — loved by millions of fans across the Americas for his thunderous mariachi anthems and lilting Latin pop balladry.

But Aguilar, 43, is also a Pink Floyd fanatic, an astute musical innovator and a rebellious businessman who decided to break free from record labels and enjoy absolute control over his career. Despite the Grammys on his shelf and sales that have exceeded 11 million records worldwide, Aguilar’s creation of a contemporary ranchera sound might be considered his biggest achievement.

“I dared to do what I liked without stopping to consider what others may think,” says Aguilar, who receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today. “My upbringing was different than that of my father (legendary singer Antonio Aguilar), or Vicente Fernandez, or Javier Solis. I grew up listening to all types of music: salsa, cumbia, rock, classical, and of course, ranchera.

“I wanted to follow a path that was unexplored until then. I wanted to be impertinent and adventurous in my musical choices. And the truth is, I’m just getting started. Until recently, I felt I was somewhat tied to my own history. Now I’m beginning to find the sound that really defines me.”

Switching between ranchera and pop is expected from the younger stars of Mexican music. But Aguilar, whose 1998 album “Por Mujeres Como Tu” is justly considered a classic of contemporary Mexican music, went about it differently. He added delicate layers of saxophone to his songs, and progressive arrangements. He never abandoned the stately elegance of traditional mariachi, but expanded its horizons in new and beautiful ways.

Aguilar started his career in a rock band that failed. But his love affair with rock ‘n’ roll invigorated his path as a performer of traditional Mexican sounds.

“The love for what you do, it’s indispensable,” he says. “You must maintain a healthy relationship with your craft. I truly think that fame is nothing but a natural consequence of hard work and craftsmanship.”

In previous interviews, Aguilar has always been vocal about the radical changes facing the record industry.

“The old system was more dead than Beethoven,” he says. “It was just rotten. The big record companies were ruled by people who knew nothing about music. They only cared about numbers and perpetuated a useless mirage. People got confused, they mixed up art with fame.”

Still, this attitude has gained Aguilar his share of enemies.

“I’m the black sheep, the dissident,” he laughs. “I was talking to a radio programmer the other day, and he inadvertently spoke the truth: ‘The problem,’ he said, ‘is that you continue making good music, so we are forced to play your songs on the radio.’ I did not know how to react to the man’s frustration. When you don’t follow the current, it frightens people. It hasn’t been an easy road. The death of the music industry happened smack in the middle of my career.”

The owner of his own recording studio, Aguilar still enjoys a distribution deal with Sony in Mexico (“they are just another element in the equation — they’re not my Dad, they’re not God”) and believes that the future of selling recorded music lies in releasing EPs. In 2011, he put out the Latin pop-flavored “Negociare Con la Pena,” and this year followed it with the seven-track ranchera collection “Mas De Un Camino.”

“I won’t be returning to the full CD format anytime soon,” he says. “You just can’t release as many songs as before these days. People have become fast consumers, and there are more new artists than ever. A six-track EP allows me to maintain contact with my fans while satisfying that part of me that still pines to express something musical. Besides, the low price of an EP may not leave enough earnings to a record company, but it’s certainly good enough for an artist.”

If anything, Aguilar sees the digital revolution as a moment of opportunity. And he’s ready to embrace it.

“I think we’re entering a marvelous new era, a time of truth and commitment,” he says. “It’s time for a new perspective.”

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