As long as I remember, there has been a Juan Gabriel song playing somewhere in the background of my life, and his recent and sudden death at 66 led me to the realization that I know the words of literally dozens of his songs by heart.
And so I mourned his untimely passing, as so many did. In the days following Juan Gabriel’s sudden death last month, an outpouring of sentiment form Mexicans on both sides of the border as well as myriads of admirers of his music from all over the world gave evidence to the importance of Juan Gabriel’s persona and body of work.
Every land has a pantheon of special artists, who somehow crystallize the essence of the complex factors that seem to define the uniqueness of that culture and society’s perspectives, and in many ways Juan Gabriel was that artist for Mexico.
With direct, almost conversational lyrics, he focused on sentiments that as Mexicans we value as ours, from sentimentality, to love for your mother, to the sweetness and almost treasuring of intense longing and a remembrance of loss that never ends.
An extremely prolific composer (35 albums and almost 2000 songs, which have been interpreted by over 800 artists; the Mexican division of ASCAP names him the number one royalty producer on record), Juan Gabriel was the soundtrack to the lives of several generations of Mexicans on both sides of the Rio Grande.
As an artist, Juan Gabriel straddled the border and crossed fronteras not just in terms of literally being raised in Ciudad Juarez (hence he was often known as “The Divo from Juarez”) but garnering success and admiration as a flamboyantly dressed, implicitly gender-fluid artist in a society known for intense machismo and marked undercurrents of homophobia, saying to those who questioned his sexual preference, “Do not ask what is obvious”.
In the tributes following his death, the reach of his music became to be known and shared. As a Chicago-based journalist, it was fascinating to find out that our currently-convicted-for-corruption ex-governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, may have once sung a Juan Gabriel classic, “Querida” to his wife at her birthday. And it is touching to think that as a song of terrible loneliness and loss, it now is even more befitting to his incarcerated status.
And somewhere in this anecdote lies the true power of Juan Gabriel’s music: blessed with a talent to create some of the catchiest musical hooks ever (his songs were true earworms, hear them once, and you are humming along forever), with sincere, almost simple lyrics (adding to their catchiness) yet somehow crystallizing deep, powerful, life-defining emotions. And because of this, his concerts, were “religious, mystical and communal experiences” says Antonio Martínez Velázquez, co-founder of cultural and political magazine, in his Facebook tribute to Juan Gabriel.
As an adolescent, I was taken once to one of these concerts at the Feria de San Luis Potosi many years ago. Juan Gabriel, who from the red carpet in the middle of the ring (the concerts were part of the fair’s cock fights) would start a song, and the audience would then join in practically screaming the words at the top of their lungs.
My family complained that as expensive as the tickets were, it was a shame that since every song turned into a full-audience major sing-along, we really could not hear the artist's himself. But nevertheless we were all moved to add our voices to the swell of the chorus. For a couple of hours, we felt the comfort of knowing that this bedecked gentleman, with songs almost too sweet for the times, was helping us share and face fears of loss, loneliness, longing.
The emotional and cultural landscape of Mexico has changed so much since those days; the Mexico of my adolescence seems long gone. Nevertheless, reviewing Juan Gabriel’s body of work I really note that even in times of loss and pain, there is no room for hate and revenge in those nearly 2000 songs.
And much like Juan Gabriel’s timeless, “Amor Eterno”, a song about losing his mother which became a classic funeral song, we continue in the vacuum left by Juan Gabriel, singing with longing of the absence of the beloved artist as well as the beloved Mexico that once was, hopeful that we can turn away from hate and revenge and move beyond these dark and difficult times.
Beat Latino "Adios JuanGa" special