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Guess what? – You missed one of the greatest singers on earth

(Former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections and contributes a regular column.)

I'm a little disappointed in my community.

By 'community,' I mean the entire Portland metropolitan area - including pretty much all of the mainstream radio, TV and print media - because they all seemed to join forces and virtually ignore a recent appearance by one of the greatest musical performers on earth.

I'm referring to Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel, who appeared at the Rose Garden Saturday, Sept. 23 - the night before Elton John was there.

I was there with five of my gringo friends who, it turns out were about the only non-Spanish-speaking folks in attendance that night (not counting the burgundy-blazered Rose Garden personnel, but definitely including Times photographer and friend Jaime Valdez, who not only speaks no Spanish but also dislikes spicy food).

The six of us were there (along with Jaime's 11-month-old daughter, Talia) because I kind of twisted everybody's arm into going. You see, I'm a born-again Juan fan who discovered the singer in the early '90s on a trip to Mazatlan.

My wife and I were having lunch in a small outdoor restaurant. It was our last full day there, and there was a weird mixture of warmth and sadness in the air. Somewhere back behind us, from the general direction of the kitchen, this bouncy Mexican music refused to stay in the background. It reminded me of the Gipsy Kings. Finally, I asked our waiter who that was singing.

'Oh, my friend,' he said, his voice softening and his body stiffening, almost coming to attention like a soldier. 'That is the great Juan Gabriel.' His eyes then widened and he added, with even more hushed reference, 'the greatest singer in all of Mexico.'

He seemed thrilled that we would even have the sense to notice such quality. He rushed away, and mere seconds later he was back, this time holding the cover of a long-playing record album. With the kind of care usually reserved for royal ceremonies and certain religious occasions, he handed it to me.

It was a live double-record album titled 'Juan Gabriel en el Palacia de Bellas Artes.' And what we had been listening to was a 26-minute piece called 'Hasta Que Te Conoci,' which occupied the entire side three of the album. It features his own giant band, his own chorus, a large mariachi band plus the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional - altogether a cast of hundreds, if not quite thousands - all gloriously recorded at a grand old Mexico City theater.

I knew I had to have this album, and eventually I found it, on cassette tape. Later, a pair of friends (who would also be among the gang of six gringos) picked me up a CD of the album on a trip to Mexico.

Everything I know about Juan Gabriel I have learned since going to the concert.

He was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez in Michoacan in January of 1950, meaning he's a couple of years younger than me. He is, according to Wikipedia, 'the most successful popular musician in the history of Mexican music and one of the most famous living representatives of the Mexican ranchera, ballad, mariachi and pop music.'

There is also some mystery surrounding his sexuality. 'During most of his career there was speculation of him being gay or not, because of his effeminate appearance and manners,' says the lengthy Wikipedia entry on him. 'He is reported to be gay by Spanish-language media. He has four children, but there are doubts, as in the case of Michael Jackson.'

Whatever. All I know is, this guy puts on a show to rival any I've seen - and that includes Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, James Brown, the Beatles, Prince, Paul McCartney and others.

And I don't understand a word he's saying.

At the Portland concert, everything he said to the audience was in Spanish, as was everything he sang. The same is true of the one Juan Gabriel album I own, and yet some of the songs (especially 'Mi Mas Bello Error') can bring this uni-lingual gringo to tears.

This concert was part of what is being billed as Gabriel's 35th anniversary tour. (From here he went to California, where he was scheduled to appear eight times before veering off to Arizona, Texas and Florida.)

I can only hope those places do a better job of welcoming him.

Shame on you, Portland, for ignoring the greatest singer in all of Mexico.