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Encore: Podcast investigates the early death of musician Chalino Sanchez

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many musicians became all the more famous after they died young, and that's true of Chalino Sanchez. But there's much more to his story, as the podcast "Idolo: The Ballad Of Chalino Sanchez" explores.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IDOLO: THE BALLAD OF CHALINO SANCHEZ")

ERICK GALINDO: At age 31, the self-made music mogul, rumored cartel hitman, acclaimed singer-songwriter and beloved father of two is dead, and the mystery surrounding his ghastly murder is about to turn this poor immigrant from a tiny Mexican pueblo into the most famous Mexican American singing outlaw that ever lived.

SHAPIRO: That's Erick Galindo, one of the hosts of "Idolo." This singer-songwriter was basically responsible for popularizing an entire musical subgenre, the narcocorrido. Sanchez spun tales of folk heroes who were sometimes drug lords.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMANDO SANCHEZ")

CHALINO SANCHEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

GALINDO: Chalino did not have a trained voice. He really does kind of sound like somebody singing in the shower. But in that way, he's so passionate and real. And he, like, inspires others to think they can sing. A lot of people don't like his voice, but eventually it grows on you. You know, we describe it like maybe the first time you smoked marijuana, where, like, you're like, this hurts. This is harsh. But then you calm down, and then you just kind of absorb it. And then you're like, oh, this is a good feeling.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMANDO SANCHEZ")

SANCHEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: There's one moment in the first episode of this podcast where you give a sense of this guy's importance for people who might not be familiar with his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IDOLO: THE BALLAD OF CHALINO SANCHEZ")

GALINDO: Three decades after his death, more than 2 million listeners still tune into his Spotify channel each month. His biggest hit, a seminal ode to unrequited love called "Las Nieves De Enero" (ph), which roughly translates to "The Snows Of January," has been streamed nearly 100 million times on the popular music platform as of June 2021. That's more times than Selena Quintanilla's "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom," Frank Sinatra's "Strangers In The Night," even Biggie's hypnotic party anthem "Get Money."

SHAPIRO: Paint a picture for us of what this guy was like.

GALINDO: You know, he actually lived a lot of the life that he sang about. And so if Billy the Kid could write his adventures into songs with the skill of Bob Dylan, that's basically who Chalino was. He's like Tupac but for folk music, you know, Spanish folk music. And also, you know, Tupac never got into a shootout on stage during one of his shows, which Chalino did. And...

SHAPIRO: So you're saying Chalino is kind of tougher than Tupac, even.

GALINDO: Chalino grew up with, like, narcos. You know, he - the story goes that he committed his first murder when he was, like, 15. One of the guys I talked to said Chalino was a bad guy trying to be a singer. Most of the time, you have singers trying to pretend they're bad guys.

SHAPIRO: He was from the same part of Mexico that your family was from, Sinaloa. So when news of his death broke in 1992, how did that land in your household?

GALINDO: I think - so Chalino did something incredible for my family, which is he sort of bridged the gap between my parents, who were immigrants - their culture with our culture here in LA. And, like, for my older brother, Paul, who was, like, a big fan of his, Chalino's death was like a death in the family. It was like one of his uncles dying.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IDOLO: THE BALLAD OF CHALINO SANCHEZ")

GALINDO: I remember him coming home that day. He didn't say anything, but he was clearly upset and wanted to play a Chalino Sanchez cassette tape in our jammed family boombox. But Paul forgot to unplug the portable radio. When he tried to dislodge a stuck Gloria Trevi cassette tape with a filed-down screwdriver, a small electrical current knocked him back...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMP)

GALINDO: ...All the way out for what felt like an eternity. After he recovered, he came into the living room and announced through hard-fought tears, they killed Chalino.

SHAPIRO: On one level, this podcast is a true crime story. Like, it's a murder mystery. Who killed Chalino Sanchez? But there's a deeper level, too. Tell us about what you were hoping to explore about music, culture, fame, the other elements that weave into this story.

GALINDO: Yeah, man. You know, like, I wanted to give some dignity to people who do grow up in these violent circles. And I just wanted to give some nuance to that experience - what it's like to grow up in violence and then try to escape.

And for me, it felt like I was talking about myself sometimes. The '90s in southeast Los Angeles - it was like the gang wars, the riots. And whether it was true or not, we all just kind of accepted the fact that we were growing up in a dangerous time in a dangerous neighborhood and that things weren't possibly going to work out. The fact that I've lived past, like, my 30s is so shocking to me that I feel like I'm living this bonus life. So when I tell these stories of these men, I'm just, like, so - I start to feel so much empathy for their plight and for the fact that they were not able to live past a certain age and that they don't get to see their grandkids and they don't get to tell their own stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHALINO SANCHEZ SONG, "HERMANOS MATA")

GALINDO: But I think at the end of the day, we just were telling a story, you know? We weren't necessarily living that life. And I think maybe that's the difference, right? Like, Chalino was telling those stories, but he was also living them. So I think that that is a big difference of just, like, this nerdy kid from the hood who, like, used to take his glasses off because he'd get beat up a little bit extra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERMANOS MATA")

SANCHEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: So now the podcast is out. Have you heard from people in that community, from his widow, from his daughter, from those people who were closest to him?

GALINDO: I have, you know? And I - my understanding from talking to them is that they're very happy that the story got told and that it got told with such dignity and honor. You know, his daughter has shared it on her Instagram (laughter), which is, like, you know, how you know you've made it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Totally, yeah.

GALINDO: But it's been wild. Like, so many people, like, have been tweeting me, DMing me. Chalino was such a big part of their life and especially people who grew up in those kinds of communities where the immigrant experience - it's always, like, told through the eyes of, like, abject poverty and victimization. And here's a guy who actually - even though he wound up, you know, caught up in this circle, he was a guy who, like, took, you know, his own route, his own path and made his own thing. And I think a lot of people in my community who don't really feel like they belong to, you know, the old country and don't really feel like they're accepted in this country - somebody who makes their own lane and who makes their own path always is going to resonate with them. And I think that that is the biggest legacy of someone like Chalino.

SHAPIRO: Erick Galindo is one of the hosts of the new podcast "Idolo: The Ballad Of Chalino Sanchez."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIEVES DE ENERO")

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