Last Year Was Awful.
I may be living in Mexico, but the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael released a flood of memories. For me, music is the essence of life. Everyone has a personal soundtrack; a cherished collection of songs and memories that become indelible as we age. It was a warm late afternoon, the day after Christmas, I sat alone on our balcony here in Colima and listened to songs that reminded me of college. I downed an ice cold Negra Modelo and the music sounded so sweet. A couple of long tears slide down my face as I smiled and tapped my feet to the rhythm. My husband stepped onto the balcony startled.
“Are you alright (estas bien),” he asked. I could hear concern in his voice. “Yes, I’m fine just a little sad and sentimental because so many of my favorite artists died this year. This music reminds me of my Ohio State days when I was young, thin and had a full head of hair,” I said. He laughed and rubbed his hand across my shaven head, “Mi peloncito (bald head).”
Didn’t They Play David Bowie and Prince in Mexico?
“I remember my roommate Tom blasting “Modern Love” before we’d go to the bars on Friday nights. When I was in high school I loved Ziggy Stardust, my best friend Dave and I thought Bowie was the coolest. What was your favorite Bowie song.” I asked Carlos. Silence. I could tell he was thinking. “I remember seeing him on television once, but I don’t know any of his songs,” he responded.
“What about Prince? You remember Prince? When I was college, I had a Jheri curl. What an embarrassment,” I laughed. “My roommate Russ and I would play the song 1999 and get stoned. I know you were in LA at the time, Prince was everywhere – he dominated.” I started to sing, “I was dreaming when I wrote this…” Carlos hesitated, “I kind of remember it a little, but I was working nights in a warehouse; I didn’t listen to much music back then. I remember Donna Summer.” He started to sing, “Lookin’ for ta-tas…” Looking for ta-tas? What the hell what that? After a few more rounds I recognized he was trying to sing the song “Hot Stuff” but in broken English. OK, she had a few disco hits in the ‘70s, but in college I hated Donna Summer.
“Now, I know you’ve heard of George Michael. I saw him in Chicago in 2006 – it was the best concert of my life. In college, my friends, Howard and Jeff would do the best imitation of Wham! I took so much grief from my friends for being a George Michael fan, but he really spoke to me as a young gay man coming out of the closet.” Another tear rolled down my cheek. I looked at my husband and he gave me the “blink-blink.”
All Alone in My Grief.
What is the “blink-blink?” It’s not a verbal response as much as it is a facial expression – a blank stare punctuated by blinking that means: I have no idea what you’re talking about. For the past two weeks I had been sharing memories and commiserating with friends on Facebook. We were bonding over the deaths of these musical giants. Here in Colima, the tragic news was processed as just another death of an American or British celebrity. I felt alone in my grief.
These are those strange expatriate moments when you want and need to commiserate around a common experience or shared event, but no one shares your perspective. I felt like an island of melancholy in a sea of normality. My husband didn’t want me to be sad, but he didn’t understand the roots of my sadness.
Juan Gabriel Also Died Last Year.
“For me, this is like the death of Juan Gabriel” I said, “surely you remember Juan Gabriel.” He sat down and smiled, “Oh yes, the last time I saw him was 12 years ago here in Colima at the palenque. The concert started at midnight and did not finish until three in the morning. It was fantastic; I went with Laura and Neomi and we danced all night long.”
He continued, “I can still remember when my sister Evelia brought home the first Juan Gabriel album. We played “No Tengo Dinero” (I don’t have money) over and over. My sisters and I were dancing like locos.” I could tell by his smile that he was experiencing a profound memory. I knew very little about Juan Gabriel when I first started traveling to Mexico. Over time, I would grasp that he was a combination of Prince, Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra. To say that he was (and still is) the giant of Mexican music is an understatement. He has no rivals; he has no equal.
It was on a Sunday night in July when I stumbled on the 16 part series “Hasta Que Te Conocí ” a memoir about the life of Juan Gabriel. My in laws jokingly call me a “novelero” a word with two meanings: one who embellishes and also a person who loves Mexican novelas. I have earned the right to that moniker. Over the years I have laughed and cried at some Mexico’s most popular novelas. The Juan Gabriel mini series, produced by Disney, took the form to another level. Even now as I am writing about his life, memories of that telecast continue to give me goosebumps.
Unlike Any Other Performer in Mexico.
To appreciate Juan Gabriel you must start with his voice. It was unlike anything heard before in Mexico. Traditional Mexican ballads, regional songs and Mariachi music is typically sung from the throat. It can be harmonious, but to my ear it lacks depth and bass. When I first heard Juan Gabriel’s voice it was instantly distinctive; he sang in dimensions recognizable to someone who grew up with American and British music. To put it plainly, he had soul in his voice. In traditional forms of Mexican music, emotion was expressed in lyric and melody. Juan Gabriel took that traditional base and gave it a dose of powerful vocal expression.
After watching and researching his life I understand why. Juan Gabriel was a precocious and sensitive child; he was unloved and partially abandoned by his mother. Somehow he survived hardscrabble Parácuaro, Michoacán and the tough streets of Cuidad Juarez. It would be accurate to say that he was fortunate he didn’t die or was killed.
African-American Roots In His Music.
During his adolescence, he encountered a gospel choir singing “Ole Happy Day” and was deeply moved by the sound of the music he heard. He joined that choir which was mostly comprised of African-American singers and learned the fundamentals of gospel music. Later, he continued to sing in the United States, living with an African American family and practicing with a larger choir. It was the first time he felt unconditional familial love writing in his diary that he wished his mother had been a black woman. Touching.
Missing his family, roots and traditions, Juan Gabriel returned to Mexico – a transformed singer. The lessons and love he experienced in the US were reflected in his voice. Gabriel took emotive singing and combined it with traditional Mexican music and changed Mexican music forever. When he sang traditional Mariachi songs grandmothers would swoon; when he sang pop music young people would get up and get down. I believe the hallmark of a great singer is the timelessness of his or her voice. Today, you can still hear emotion in Juan Gabriel’s voice.
An Authentically Mexican Voice.
What was and still is so wonderful about Juan Gabriel’s music is that he didn’t try to imitate American music. He never tried to be a rhythm and blues or gospel singer; he remained authentically Mexican. All of this you can hear in his voice and in his songs.
Now when I hear a Juan Gabriel song I am moved to dance, sing or cry. I understand a piece of the Mexican heart. I am and always will be 100 percent American; but Juan Gabriel allows me to enjoy a little bit of the soul of Mexico – tearful, joyous and irresistible. So while I mourn the loss of three giants of of my youth who defined the soundtrack of my life; my husband and I also remember Juan Gabriel a singer who as Mick Jones of the Clash wrote, “moves our feet and touches our soul.”
Music is the eternal bridge between cultures.