One of the indispensable voices of all-time Cuban music is undoubtedly Celia Cruz. And in the history of Cuban music there were and are a great many voices that can be considered indispensable. What’s paradoxical about this affirmation is that since she bid farewell to her family and friends in 1960 to never return, her merit as an artist, in Cuba, was always eclipsed by her political positions against the Cuban government. Here we stayed with Benny Moré, Barbarito Diez, Bola de Nieve, Esther Borja, Rosita Fornés and so many others who helped us bear the absence and even the nostalgia over those who, like Celia, would depart to the other side of the wall of silence. And then her civil death occurred, decreed with her exclusion from national radio stations and the absence of news about her work abroad, even during the years of greatest splendour of “salsa,” when in the 1970s and 1980s she became one of the iconic figures of that music resulting from such diverse components, but where the Cuban flavour was one of the principal ingredients, and she was crowned by the Caribbean’s music lovers as “The Empress of Salsa.”
It seemed that Celia Cruz was one of those persons predestined to be what she was. Though her parents dreamed of another future for her and she practically finished her studies to become a teacher, the talented young woman defended her vocation with sufficient strength to demonstrate her worth and make a place for herself among the greats. She never abandoned music and music never abandoned her, because she was one of those artists who during the most difficult times of her career, when her decline seemed most imminent, she was capable of reinventing herself, recovering the favour of the public and even winning over new admirers.
It is said she never wanted to say her age, therefore she was officially born on October 21, 1925 and would now be celebrating her 90th birthday if her second and real physical death had not occurred 12 years ago, caused by a cancer that in the end overcame her sturdy voice and her inexhaustible energy on stage, almost impossible for her age (no matter what it was).
Though what is most remembered about her work in Cuba always goes back to her passage through the band La Sonora Matancera, the truth is that when she entered that group Celia already had made a name for herself in other popular bands and had worked as a singer in the show “Las mulatas de fuego” (The Fire Mulattas), conceived by Roderico Neyra, the visionary Rodney, founder of Tropicana. In addition, she had travelled to Mexico and Venezuela where she recorded her first records.
Finally, in 1950 Celia was hired to work with La Sonora Matancera, and though during her beginning with the famous band there was no lack of setbacks, the success of her first numbers decided her fate with that group. In 1960 an attractive contract would take them to Mexico, on a one-way trip for Celia and some of the musicians who accompanied her, like the second trumpet Pedro Knight, who would later become her husband and representative for the rest of his life.
About her work outside Cuba it is indispensable to mention Celia’s collaboration since 1966 with another of the greats of Caribbean music, Tito Puente, which would result in several records. But perhaps what was most important was the moment in which Larry Harlow, who belonged to the Fania Records label, proposed to her the recording of a song for the salsa opera Hommy, which was put on in New York’s mythical Carnegie Hall. Starting then she was practically rediscovered by Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco – with whom she signed a contract for Vaya Records, a branch of the Fania Records label -, and with whom she would record Celia & Johnny, an LP that caused great impact and got a Gold Record. This is how Celia, though late, made her grand entrance to salsa.
The Fania label, founded in 1963 in New York by U.S. producer and businessman Jerry Masucci and by Johnny Pacheco, was decisive in the promotion of Latin music in the United States (and beyond), and especially of that new sound that was called by the generic and commercial name of “salsa.” The record company also created the mythical group Fania All-Stars, a musical bombshell whose shock wave was barely felt in Cuba but which for decades marked the way of making music in our sphere. And in the midst of all this was the already mature Celia Cruz.
It is rather interesting that, among all the Cuban musicians residing at that time in the United States, Celia was the one who best knew how to assimilate the new airs and got on the salsa bandwagon, while not abandoning her origins. While others remained more or less faithful to their previous line of work, and were even considering salsa as a bad plagiarism of Cuban music and a threat to their work, Celia accepted the challenge of the change. With that acceptance her career was revitalised and got a new boost, while the singer was able to have an unquestionable place with the new “mambo kings,” who despite the generational differences, accepted and recognised her as one of the guardian goddesses of salsa.
While the 1970s were crucial for that return with glory, during the 1980s Celia consolidated her reign for good. She made several tours through Latin American countries, recorded new LPs, gave numerous concerts and participated in TV programmes. She shared the stage with the most renowned singers and musicians of the time, young stars or from her generation, and in 1982 she recorded the LP Feliz Encuentro (Happy Meeting) with the Sonora Matancera. That same year she received a great tribute in Madison Square Garden as recognition for her musical career. In 1987 she received the New York Music Award to the best Latin artist and, to spectacularly close that decade, in 1989 she won the first Grammy Award for her record Ritmo en el corazón (Rhythm in the Heart), which she recorded with Ray Barretto.
Throughout her long career, during which she recorded more than 80 records, she received a total of three Grammy Awards and four Latin Grammy Awards. She also won a significant amount of gold and platinum records and in 1994 she was given the highest recognition granted by the U.S. government to an artist, the National Endowment for the Arts, handed to her by then President Bill Clinton.
For Venezuelan César Miguel Rondón, Celia Cruz played a very special role in that musical current so important in the Latin sphere. In his indispensable book El libro de la Salsa (The Salsa Book), the renowned musicologist affirms: “She was a gift for salsa, a figure that came from the old guaracha and knew how to prolong the same spirit in the turbulence of the new times….”
After her death on July 16, 2003, concerts are still given for Celia Cruz, the unquestionable “Queen of Salsa,” or better perhaps, to “Cuba’s Guarachera,” as she was also called, a less aristocratic title but much more revealing of her authentic origins on this land where she was born, and to which she has still not returned. (2015)
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