The memory of Celia Cruz is plagued with misunderstanding. When they remember her, casual fans of Latin music evoke her colorful wigs, glamorous outfits and the instantly hummable hits that she recorded during the last chapter of her career (one of them, the rap-meets-salsa smash "La Negra Tiene Tumbao," is included in this collection). Celia Cruz and her prodigious discography captured the very essence of tropical music. The tracks in this anthology prove that she possessed one of the most seductive voices in the history of Latin American music. ...MORE >
The memory of Celia Cruz is plagued with misunderstanding. When they remember her, casual fans of Latin music evoke her colorful wigs, glamorous outfits and the instantly hummable hits that she recorded during the last chapter of her career (one of them, the rap-meets-salsa smash "La Negra Tiene Tumbao," is included in this collection). Celia Cruz and her prodigious discography captured the very essence of tropical music. The tracks in this anthology prove that she possessed one of the most seductive voices in the history of Latin American music. Furthermore, her astute choice of repertoire and her knack for surrounding herself with the right bandleaders and producers (from Tito Puente and Memo Salamanca to Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto) allowed her to transcend the usual clichés that regard salsa as "hot" music for "passionate" people.
Celia's career traces the development of the entire tropical genre, from the obvious dominance of Cuba during the golden era of Latin music to the emergence of the Nuyorican salsa explosion as a potent cultural phenomenon and the subsequent appearance of the Miami sound and its influence on a more commercial brand of tropical pop.
Unlike other divas who remained forever associated with the specific era that witnessed their artistic peak (the '50s for Machito's vocalist Graciela, the '60s for soulful La Lupe), Celia learned to evolve with the times, changing her songbook in subtle ways and yet remaining her endearing self.
Through the power of Celia's voice, the Afro-Cuban arena became a platform for the expression of myriad feelings: life-loving exuberance, romantic regret, unrestrained joy, stubborn optimism and deep nostalgia for the homeland that she left behind.
Celia Cruz was born the second of four children in the Havana neighborhood of Barrio Santo Suárez. At an early age, she realized that there was something about her voice that made people happy. When her parents entrusted her with the care of her younger siblings, Celia would entertain them by singing popular Cuban songs. Neighbors from nearby apartments would congregate in front of her house and stay there for hours, listening to the small girl with the beautiful voice.
Celia's father advised her against a musical career. He thought that the clubs and cabarets where live music was being performed at the time in Cuba were no place for his young daughter. Instead, he insisted that she should become a schoolteacher.
Because she adored her father and did not want to disappoint him, Celia followed his advice and graduated with teaching credentials. At the same time, and thanks to a liberal aunt who was invested in coming to the aid of her oppressed niece, she began visiting the local night clubs, becoming acquainted with the richness of contemporary Cuban music.
The '40s and '50s were a time of tremendous creativity for the island's music; where everything centered on the son, Cuba's protean song format. Like most Latin genres, the son is a combination of three different influences: European melody, African rhythm and indigenous flavor.
The son, which was born in the Oriente province during the 1880s and arrived to Havana around 1909, was originally performed using a rustic configuration of stringed instruments, minor percussion and, later on, a solitary trumpet. It was during the '40s and '50s – decades that were essential to Celia's artistic formation – that the format experienced its defining evolution when seminal bandleaders such as Arsenio Rodríguez, Félix Chapottín and Pérez Prado incorporated piano, congas and a variety of brass instruments to the mix. At that point, the son began sounding very much like the electrifying music that would eventually become known all over the world as salsa.
"Today we call it salsa," Celia told me during an interview conducted a few years before her death in 2003. "Before, we would call it by whatever particular dance style it was: rumba, guaracha, mambo, guajira, guaguancó. These are the folkloric rhythms of my country, the different styles that exist in Cuba. I've never had a problem with the term salsa, because we've all spent decades earning a living by performing this music. But my friend Tito Puente would get really upset whenever he heard that word. 'Salsa is something you eat,' he'd say fuming. 'This is Afro-Cuban music.' And Tito wasn't even Cuban. He was Puerto Rican."
Inspired by the musical happenings around her, Celia began competing in local radio talent shows – and winning. Curiously enough, a tango was her first song of choice. It was soon followed by dozens of radio appearances interpreting boleros and more upbeat material.
Celia's big break – the one that would forever solidify her career – came in June of 1950, when she was invited by the legendary Sonora Matancera to replace original vocalist Myrta Silva, who was leaving the band and returning to her native Puerto Rico.
Formed in 1924 under the original name of La Tuna Liberal, La Sonora Matancera had, just like the son itself, spent decades perfecting its sound and instrumentation. When it enlisted Celia, the group had become an institution, recording at a breakneck speed and departing for lengthy tours all over the Americas.
La Matancera's most important innovation was adding a pop sensibility to authentic Afro-Caribbean dance styles. Under the leadership of guitarist and musical director Rogelio Martínez, the group perfected the concept of the spicy, three-minute tropical hit single. This was definitely not a traditional son ensemble relying solely on folklore.
By the time she recorded her first 78 RPM session with the group, which included her now immortal renditions of the majestic "Mata Siguaraya" and the playful "Cao Cao Maní Picao," Celia had won over the hearts of Matancera's staunchest fans.
Celia remained with the band for the next 15 years, recording a vast amount of hits. Her throaty pipes infused vitality to even the most pedestrian of Matancera tunes. She was equally adept at the slow boleros and the more party-friendly material, but her forte was the African-oriented side of her repertoire – the rumbas and the pregones.
The revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro found the Sonora Matancera at the peak of its popularity. Not content with the new regime, the band left Cuba on a routine trip to Mexico – a tour from which it never returned. Celia saw her beloved homeland for the last time on July 15, 1960.
In 1965, Celia ended her 15-year run with the Matancera. But the successful solo career that the singer and her husband Pedro Knight had fantasized about failed to materialize, even though she recorded sterling albums in Mexico with bandleader Memo Salamanca, and as the singer with the Tito Puente orchestra in New York.
Together, Celia and Tito recorded eight exquisite albums – and continued collaborating sporadically until the bandleader's death in the year 2000. A few months before his passing, Tito Puente told me over dinner that of all the singers that had ever accompanied him, Celia had always been his personal favorite.
"There's nobody in the whole word who could sing like her," he said. "It was a very strong combination when we played together. Celia is a very educated and intelligent person. She's unique. I've played with her 588 times. She's kept count, and she has the memory of an elephant."
Selections from these albums take up the lion's share of Disc 1. If you are new to this material, prepare yourself to be dazzled. There are supremely emotional boleros ("Me Acuerdo De Ti," about Celia's nostalgia for Cuba), sinuous nuggets of Afro-Cuban perfection ("Bómboro Quiñá"), blistering Sonora Matancera covers ("Cao Cao Maní Picao"), and delightful pastiches of Latin funk ("Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In").
Unfortunately, the albums failed to connect with a youth that, at the time, was enamored with rock 'n roll. By the early '70s, Celia was in dire need of a comeback project with serious commercial potential. Miraculously, she positioned herself in the midst of perhaps the most important movement in the annals of Afro-Caribbean music – the salsa explosion unleashed by Fania.
Founded by impresario Jerry Masucci and Dominican bandleader/flutist Johnny Pacheco in 1964, Fania gathered the most talented musicians of the time under one roof, blending the percolating combustion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with the swing of American jazz and the urban influence of R&B.
To this day, the Fania catalogue represents the apex of tropical music, the standard against which all subsequent efforts continue to be measured. There's no denying the cathartic power of the earlier, more traditional examples of the Afro-Cuban canon. But seminal efforts by the likes of Pacheco, Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri and the Fania All Stars took the entire genre to another level by adding to it a modernist approach, social commentary and an omnivorous taste for outside influences.
It was one of the label's biggest stars, keyboardist, bandleader and Cuban music fanatic Larry Harlow, who invited Celia to participate in his 1973 Latin opera Hommy. She performed the hit "Gracia Divina," introducing herself to a new generation of fans. Later the same year, an extended concert performance of the standard "Bemba Colorá" at the Yankee Stadium (included in the second volume of the two LP set Live At Yankee Stadium) sealed the deal. Celia Cruz had become Fania's own Queen of Salsa.
In 1974, Pacheco, whose orchestra updated the Cuban conjunto textures of the Matancera with punchy, brassier arrangements, invited Celia to record with him. The resulting album, Celia & Johnny, was a stunning artistic triumph that catapulted the singer to a level of superstardom she had not even experienced with the Matancera. In the loving hands of Pacheco, Celia shone like a shooting star. The opening track alone, the volcanic, African-inflected "Químbara," was worth the prize of admission – a clear indication of Celia's almost supernatural vocal powers. Fittingly, "Químbara" is the opening track of Disc 2 in this anthology.
To Fania's credit, the company treated Celia like the regal performer that she was. In subsequent years, she recorded a string of phenomenal albums with the label's most talented leaders: Pacheco, of course, but also Willie Colón, Papo Lucca (the virtuoso pianist with Puerto Rico's Sonora Ponceña) and Ray Barretto (their 1988 collaboration Ritmo En El Corazón gave Celia her first Grammy victory.) Under the guidance of Colón, she delved into Brazilian rhythms with excellent covers of samba and bossa nova nuggets like "Usted Abusó" and "Berimbau."
"When Celia and I started working together, she was already an established artist," recalls Willie. "For me, it was like a graduation into the big leagues. But in the end, she was easier to work with than some of the younger divas from my generation. Celia was always willing to listen to ideas, no matter how silly they sounded. She knew that music was not an exact science. I think that was partially the key to her longevity."
As part of the Fania All Stars, Celia performed live in the company of salsa singers of her own caliber such as Héctor Lavoe and Cheo Feliciano. With Pacheco as musical director, the band traveled to Africa where Celia was greeted as a goddess and performed raucous versions of "Químbara" and the Cuban favorite "Guantanamera."
Celia’s career remained intact after Fania folded in the late ‘80s. By then, salsa fans around the globe had developed a voracious appetite for all things Celia. She quickly secured a recording contract with Ralph Mercado's RMM Records, the New York-based company that dominated salsa during most of the '90s, and switched to Sony for three highly successful albums (one of which was released posthumously in 2003). Toward the end of her career, Celia recorded the monster hits "Que Le Den Candela," "La Vida Es Un Carnaval" and "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."
"I remember when we went to Africa together," Johnny Pacheco told me recently from his home in New York. "The president of the country sent two limousines to pick us up from the airport – one for me, and one for Celia. At one point, she said: 'We're here because of you, Johnny,' and that made feel so good. I asked her to sing 'Guantanamera' and the crowd went wild."
Pacheco sounds melancholy as he remembers the unforgettable diva.
"La voz de esa mujer," he whispers. "That woman's voice - it was just unbelievable. Out of this world."