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The legacy of Vicente Fernandez, king of ranchera music, who died on Sunday

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Vicente Fernandez died yesterday at 81. He was Mexico's superstar singer, beloved throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including Mexican immigrant communities in the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on the outpouring of grief for the singer known as El Rey, the king of Ranchera.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Fans lined up for hours to get into the huge arena on Vicente Fernandez's famous ranch outside Guadalajara yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIACHI BAND FOR VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Surrounded by a sea of white flowers, Fernandez's coffin was placed center stage, with his trademark wide-brimmed sombrero on top. His mariachi backup band of decades provided the hours long playlist of his greatest hits, while frequently pausing their vocals to allow the crowd to be heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIACHI BAND FOR VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: That collective cathartic release was also on full display in the bars along Mexico City's Garibaldi Plaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Dozens fans not concerned with pitch or tune drank and sang Fernandez's songs long into the night alongside one of the many mariachi groups that make this plaza famous. Rosa Maria Campos came out with several friends to mourn Fernandez.

ROSA MARIA CAMPOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: There just aren't any more singers like him, the 62-year-old devotee lamented. He was the last. She anticipates Ranchera's musical decline without Fernandez.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVER, VOLVER")

VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Always performing in tight-fitting mariachi suits, that huge sombrero and a pistol on his hip, Fernandez's old-school style, a mix of Mexico machismo and sappy romanticism, has lost its appeal amongst younger generations. And that worries 52-year-old Magadelena Vazquez.

MAGADELENA VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Frankly, music today has no message, she told me when I recently visited Cocula, Guadalajara, known as the birthplace of Mariachi.

VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: I have two daughters, and I asked them - how will a boy romance you, win you over, with what song? - she asks. Her husband hides his face in his hands and laughs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACA ENTRE NOS")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Others, like Arturo Vargas, lead singer and guitarist with the group Mariachi Vargas De Tecalitlan, insists Ranchera music and Fernandez's legacy will live on.

ARTURO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: His mark is significant. He'll always be among Mexican music's icons, says Vargas, because, as Fernandez said in a farewell concert in Mexico City in 2016, his fans were everything to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Appearing to choke back tears, he told the crowd, it was always about your affection, your respect and your applause. And as he sings in the song "El Rey," not about fame or wealth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.