Heart Core

My lover stood before me coldly emanating disgust, our relationship hanging on a thread of fear and a memory of passion. Dignified in my pain, I sat in stony silence. Inhaling hatred, I closed my eyes and envisioned my frozen heart. I was beyond feeling.

Scorned, I walked numbly to my stereo system, pivoted by an unknown force. I punched some buttons. Ana Gabriel's voice filled the room, accompanied by guitars, mariachis, and the exact dimension of my own emotions: "How can I forget the taste I carry within/The sensation of being near you/The great love born between us." I reached for my cold lover and wept in anguish until arms encircled me with love. Ana Gabriel gets the credit.

I always liked her. But the moment she made me cry she earned an unrivaled rank in my musical encyclopedia: gut wrencher.

Gut wrenching. Ana Gabriel possesses a raw, husky voice full of feeling. The only thing topping her vocals is her songwriting skill. She writes love as if it were a mango-coconut bread recipe -- she knows well the difference a dash of vanilla extract makes. With her compositions, love -- a subject so exploited, pureed ad nauseum -- somehow retains its original magic.

Gabriel is not one of those artists who used to be good and then sold out. On the contrary, her recorded beginnings are a contrived cheap shot at what she isn't. On her first album, Unica, she wears burgundy polyester, clunky wooden pumps, false eyelashes, penciled eyebrows, dirty blond hair, and a stiff pose. Chinese eyes, suggestive lips, authentic poise. A hokey album it was, with Gabriel singing melodramatic, stylized ballads. Big surprise -- her strong vocals and choice of material corresponded precisely to the Latin-music industry's vision for female artists: weak, beggy, and trashy. Gabriel is, in fact, none of that, and packaging her as a sniveling stereotype didn't work. She's too good for falseness. When Ana Gabriel performs her own compositions, it's like opening a music box that contains your heart.

Gabriel's latest, Silueta, is a work that takes her gravelly vocals and ingenious songwriting on a successful high-tech ride. With the music recorded in Brazil and the vocals in Los Angeles, the CD aims for international mass appeal, the singer now packaged as the all-around hit girl, glittering with flamenco jazz, mellow rock, ballads, pop, samba, and funk. The combination works, although it's unnecessary. Because Gabriel has consistently charted hits since the mid-Eighties and has received dozens of honors, she already has a proven formula. Still, Silueta takes her even further commercially, from the red lips that rebound off her face-immersed-in-a-splash-painting cover art to the last laser drop of funky pop.

As usual, Gabriel's songcraft and vocal efforts excel. The difference between the new album and, say, Quien Como Tu or Tierra de Nadie, is that this time she's accompanied by a slew of incredibly adept musicians. Their precise instrumentation carries her through lush layers of sound. Brazilian Milton Guedes, for example, rocks on "Ahora Si" with harmonica, funks out with flute on "Amandole," and injects sax perfectly into the pop entry "Todo Termino." Acoustic guitar in the intro of "Tu Y Yo" later blends with electric, an effective orchestration that's variously played by three guitarists -- Brazilian Rogerio Meanda, Argentinian Victor Biglione, and North American Michael Thompson. Wherever there's a guitar tug on Silueta, it's a special moment.

Even though the Brazilian influence dominates Silueta, various styles are mixed in throughout: "Que Bien Me Siento" features flamenco jazz with traditional Mexican rhythm guitar; "Llena de Romance" is a jazzy ballad with a corny back-up chorus; "Mal Contigo, Peor Sin Ti" has a funk slap bass, big hook, and a samba break with voice percussion, making it highly danceable. And even better is "Quiero Yo Saber," a funky samba reggae that drives, though perhaps it doesn't drive quite enough. Good stuff, sure, but the energy level never fluctuates to the point where you can really get down. Strangely, within all this disparateness, there is also a certain sameness, so it's little wonder that a current hit (numero uno on Billboard's Latin chart) off the CD is "Evidencias," an overly dramatic formula song just perfect for Miami.

Gabriel's previous recordings have been full of love ballads and polished pop, simple modes that make the best use of her husky alto vocals. The only time she fully digressed from this model was on last year's Mi Mexico, an album devoted entirely to rancheras. Gabriel, Mexican with Chinese ancestry, milks vulnerable hearts as she sings these emotion-laden rancheras. Personally, I wouldn't mind if she limited herself to rancheras for the rest of her musical life. She seems most comfortable in that style, Mexican guitars gently framing her voice with antiquity as she serves the wounded and the inspired. I plan to attend her first Miami concert, this Sunday. I'll go inspired, along with my no-longer lover. And I'll also give Gabriel the credit for that.

ANA GABRIEL performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2 Ave, 372-0929. Tickets cost $26 and $36.


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