Elvis may be the King, But José is El Rey


I loved watching the athletes of London Olympics, but as usual, found the sports announcers to be highly annoying.  There was one exception.  Wanting to bestow the title of King on the victorious Usain Bolt, John McEnroe asked him, “Have you heard of Elvis Presley.  He’s sort of like the Bob Marley of America,” he said.  Indeed.  But, I live in central Mexico and the king of ranchera, of hanging-your-head-and-sobbing-in-your-tequila music, is without a doubt José Alfredo Jiménez.

There are concerts celebrating his music, mariachis perform his songs for tourists dining al fresco in the plazas.  And musicians at the annual performing arts festival honor his home state by singing his songs (usually El Rey).

Born in 1926, Jiménez had no formal musical training.  This didn’t stop him from composing hundreds of songs which were performed by him as well as by other giants of ranchera like Jorge Nigrete.  Jiménez died young, at the age of 47, but left a legacy that continues.

No Vale Nada La Vida

One quality I like is his pessimism. I mean if you’re going to whine, you might as well really milk it.  The song Caminos de Guanajuato starts out by proclaiming, “No vale nada la vida.”  Life is worthless.  You come into the world crying and leave it the same way.  “No vale nada la vida,” is printed  prominently on his grave.

And quite a grave it is.  I had heard that the cemetery in the traditional Mexican town of Dolores Hidalgo, where José was born and is buried, had a “tiled sombrero” on Jiménez’ tomb.   Then I noticed a billboard advertising it on the highway that runs between Guanajuato and Dolores.  So, on my next trip to Dolores, I asked the friend who was driving if we could stop there.

Wow.  The cement sombrero was huge.  And emanating out from it was a colorful tiled replica of a striped scarf, each stripe containing the title of one of his songs.  My friend told me that are speakers built into this sculpture and that when she had visited before there was music playing. I saw a group of mariachis was setting up behind the grave.  Perhaps the recorded tunes had been turned off in order to accommodate a live performance of his music.

Tomb of José Alfredo Jiménez. Photo by Martha Silva.

Sigo Siendo el Rey

José Alfredo Jiménez’ signature song is El Rey.  It whines a little too- you done me wrong and you’ll be sorry when I die- type of stuff.  But the heart of the song is the chorus.  Here pessimism meets egoism:

Con dinero y sin dinero
Hago siempre lo que quiero
Y mi palabra es la ley.
No tengo trono ni reina
Ni nadie que me comprenda
Pero sigo siendo el rey.
With money or without money,
I always do what I want.
And my word is the law.
I don’t have a throne or a queen,
Or anyone that understands me.
But I am still the king!

Long live the king!


Published in Culture and People, Mexico

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