This story is part of Billboard‘s Mujeres Latinas en la Música package.
The first person to believe in the musical talent of María Guadalupe Araujo Yong, later known as Ana Gabriel, was her grandfather, Roberto Yong. Born in China, his sister had been an opera singer, and it was he who taught the little girl to control her breathing, to take care of her voice, to respect the stage. It was also he who told her: “Among the green apples, try to be the red.”
She did so, and against all expectations — she was told, since the very start, that her signature hoarse voice was “anti-aesthetic” — she landed 27 albums on Billboard’s Latin Pop Albums chart (the woman with the most titles on this list) and six No. 1s on Hot Latin Songs, including megahits “Ay Amor” and “Evidencias,” both written by her, just like 90% of her hits.
On the exclusive Billboard Greatest of All Time Latin Artists chart, Ana Gabriel is currently listed at No. 25.
Today, in her 60s, the Mexican singer-songwriter is still a force of nature. Her current Por Amor a Ustedes world tour, which spans 36 arenas across the United States, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, is sold out, and she’s planning a performance at the historic Olympia Theater in Paris — a perfect venue for a living legend.
Billboard: I can’t think of any other Latina who at this age continues to tour the world’s stages with such success. Why do you do it?
Ana Gabriel: Because there is an audience behind me that is my base, that takes me by the hand in what I give them as a person, as a human being, as a singer, as a composer. Because there are no lies when I’m onstage. I am the same: the one below, the one who is talking to you right now, and the one onstage; the only difference is one has makeup and one doesn’t.
This audience is responsible for making me a living legend. They’ve supported me for many years because I have not lied to them. They know me so much, so much, so much that when I keep my distance or silence it is because they know that I’m taking time to recycle myself as a human being.
You told me that you had been working on your spiritual side for some time. Tell us a little about that.
Over the past 25 years I have reaffirmed that quest. The years open up other fields for you; they turn on little lights and turn off others. But my spiritual search comes from childhood because of the close and direct contact I had with my Chinese grandfather. He talked to me a lot about how they handled Zen, the center. How sometimes we have to control ourselves and how we have to learn to control ourselves. Because it is one thing to have character, and another to be strong in character. You have to define it. And that has taken me a lot of work. The only thing I can assure you is that I never stood on a little brick. I always kept my feet very much on the ground to know how tall I am.
Was your grandfather the one who taught you to sing?
My grandfather is the one who gave me advice as a singer, how to position my voice, how to breathe so as not to hurt my vocal cords. He gave me the exercises that I didn’t understand when I was very young, and after standing on [a stage] for the first time in 1974, I realized what he was teaching me. He taught me to read aloud with a pencil under the tongue, for diction.
Did he actually see you perform onstage?
He did see me recording, but not standing on a stage. [Even so,] he was quite moved to see me and understood that I was born for that. My great inspiration to sing was my grandfather. He spoke to me a lot about the spiritual, about that side I must protect. To say thank you before stepping on the stage and to ask permission before entering it.
It took you 10 years to get a label to believe in you. Why?
It didn’t take me 10 years to sign with a label, but rather for someone at the label to believe in the voice, to believe in what Ana Gabriel brought to the table and support it. They said: “It’s just that your voice is strange.” They called it “anti-aesthetic.” It was the complete opposite of what was heard at that time, which was very high-pitched voices, and I arrived with the complete opposite. Even though my voice is very hoarse, I have a very high range. That’s what they didn’t understand. But also the record companies, to say it openly, have always been risk-averse. If one song worked, they want another one just like it. And as I learned from my grandfather: Try to be the red apple that stands among the green ones. Being different requires hard work, but if you have patience, you can do it.
Do you consider yourself a composer first and then a performer?
I identify as both. There is a very great duality. In fact, when I started composing I was ashamed to show my music. I said, “How am I going to open my spirit? How am I going to open my soul to people I don’t know? I prefer to sing songs by other composers.” But my first composition came along and that’s when I realized that what the public liked were my songs. Although I perform songs by other composers, 90% of my recordings are my own compositions, music and lyrics.
“Ay Amor” was your first No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs. Do you remember what you felt at that moment?
I thanked God. I thanked my parents. My family. And again, the public. Without the public you cannot reach those levels. I never said, “Oh, I finally made it.” In fact, I must say, I have not made it yet. If I think I’ve already made it, I’m going to just sit in a comfortable spot and won’t allow myself to grow. You can’t just settle.
At the end of this great tour, what’s next for you?
First of all, continuing to be healthy. I have to take advantage of the fact that I can still sing, I can still move, jump onstage. What I don’t want is to fail the public onstage. When my tour in Europe is over, I’m going to pull myself together a bit and get back in the studio. In fact, we’re going to start recording a song that I perform in honor of two departed friends: Juan Gabriel and Rocío Dúrcal. And [I’m going to] plan what I’ll be doing at the Olympia in Paris — to appear there is one of the biggest dreams of my life. [After Lola Beltrán and Chavela Vargas,] I would be the third Mexican woman to step on that stage.