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Adiós To The Queen Of Salsa


July 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Celia Cruz at the Latin Grammy Awards in September 2002.
PHOTO: Agence France-Presse

Celia Cruz, the grande dame of Cuban music, the woman whose unmistakable voice resonated of the rhythm-rich island itself, died Wednesday after a seven-month battle with brain cancer.

Cruz died at 5 p.m. at her home in Fort Lee, N.J. She was 77, her husband said -- or 78, according to most biographers.

To Cubans on this side of the Florida Straits, her death is much more than the silencing of one of their homeland's greatest musical figures. Celia was the very embodiment of a fabled, nostalgia-hued Cuba, an icon in nine-inch heels and sky-high wigs whose heart always beat to the sway of those long-lost palm trees.

Her death represents the shattered hopes of every abuelo and abuela who prayed they'd live long enough to see the end of Fidel Castro.

''Students often ask me what I think will happen when Castro dies,'' said Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, professor of literature at Columbia University and author of several books on Cuban-American culture. ``I say that whatever happens, it will have happened too late, thinking of my father and my grandfather and the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have died in exile. Celia Cruz is part of that generation that you sometimes see the remnants of, walking like lost souls up and down Calle Ocho.''

Celia may have stood for those steadfast Cuban exiles who can't wrench the pain of a lost homeland from their heart, but she was much bigger than just Cuba.

She was one of the Latin world's truest living legends, an international star who demanded the spotlight's fickle attention for six decades, through changing epochs, vacillating musical trends -- even the reinvention of her beloved Cuban son, one of the oldest Cuban genres and the root of most Afro-Latin dance beats, including mambo and salsa.

A hitmaker to the end, she broke all the barriers of sex-kitten-obsessed Latin pop, making it onto Top Five radio playlists just last year with La negra tiene tumbao, a sizzling tune that blends traditional tropical with hip-hop.

To watch her move on stage -- arms pumping, hips swinging, shoulders shaking, doing that skippity-skippity-hop of hers -- was to fall under her spell. She transmitted the joy of conga-pounding Cuban music like nobody else. The grandparents who remembered her from way-back-when were just as stirred as the kids who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees.

''There can never be another Celia Cruz,'' said good friend Israel ''Cachao'' López, credited with creating the mambo. ``Nobody has her grace, her style, her voice. Like Beny Moré, she was born to be a legend.''

Cachao had known Celia since she first started going with her family to neighborhood dances featuring his orchestra at age 14. ``She was just a girl, with no thought of being a performer. But she loved the music. It was always in her.''


Celia grew up poor, in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suárez. She would sing her younger brothers and sisters to sleep, but when neighbors started coming around to listen to that powerful contralto, she'd shyly shut the door.

When she was a teenager, a cousin talked her into entering a radio contest. She won, and from that point on, began doing the radio circuit in Havana. But not because she was dreaming of stardom -- she was studying to be a schoolteacher.

''I really loved to sing,'' Celia told The Herald in 2000. ``But I also did it because if you won, you would get a cake, or a bag with chocolate, condensed milk, ham. We were very poor. And all of that came in very handy at home.''

As she was graduating, one of her teachers made her rethink her plan. ''You just keep singing. One day, you're going to make more money in a day than I do in a month,'' she told Celia.

In 1950, La Sonora Matancera, one of Cuba's hottest bands, lost lead singer Mirtha Silva, who unexpectedly quit to return to her native Puerto Rico. La Sonora gave Celia a shot. But for Silva fans, the young Celia was a hard sell.

''Nobody wanted me. They would scream at me to get me offstage,'' Celia said. ``My voice was very high in those days. Mirtha had this pasty voice, very different from mine. She would come out in Bohemia magazine wrapped in just a towel. I was very serious. But La Sonora took me all over Cuba and after some time people got used to me.''

Alfredo ''Chocolate'' Armenteros, who played trumpet with La Sonora in the early 1950s and appears on one of Celia's earliest recorded hits, Burundanga, calls that a major understatement.

''She went on to be the voice of Cuba,'' Armenteros, who was also musical director of his cousin Beny Moré's band, said from his home in New York. ``Cuba has given a lot of big musical talents. But for there to be another Celia, a lot of years will have to pass.''

When Celia left Cuba in 1960 with La Sonora, she was one of the island's leading voices and dearest stars. La Guarachera de Cuba, she was called for popularizing a downhome Afro-Cuban genre, guaracha, all over Latin America. But once outside her homeland, she was granted a bigger title: Queen of Salsa.

With the late Tito Puente, the Puerto Rican percussionist who ushered her into New York's Latin jazz world of the 1960s, she helped establish the modern Latin sound. Celia accepted the throne with grace even though she never saw salsa as anything but a tweaked version of the son.

''Tito always said that salsa was something that you ate with chips,'' Celia said. ``To me, it's Cuban music. Except maybe the arrangements were more modern, there were a few more electronic instruments. But it's the same music that has moved me from the beginning.''

After Puente, she worked with the other salsa greats, from Johnny Pacheco to Willie Colón.

''As a musician, she had a calculator in her head. Her timing, her rhythm, her phrasing were always impeccable,'' said Pacheco, a founder of the salsa label Fania. Their 1974 collaboration, Celia y Johnny, which featured Químbara, one of her biggest hits, quickly shot to gold.

''I remember when we were recording Eternos [1978], we had almost finished the record when an engineer stopped us and said we had to start again because the microphone was backwards,'' Pacheco said. ``But then we heard it and kept it. Even with the microphone pointing in the wrong direction, she sounded great.''

The Queen of Salsa title reflected her expanding kingdom. Puerto Ricans claimed her, Dominicans claimed her, Mexicans claimed her. Into her late 70s, she was packing houses all over Latin America and in places like Germany, Sweden, Japan, England and Morocco.

And she managed to keep her throne by sheer force of voice and an indefatigable passion for the stage. Until December, when she was forced to cancel dates to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor, she was tirelessly touring, spending more than 11 months of the year on an airplane.

Husband Pedro Knight, a dapper, throwback gentleman who never goes anywhere without a suit coat, was always at her side. She and her cabecita de algodón, her little cottonhead, were so inseparable he even accompanied her to manicures when they were home in Fort Lee. They never had kids.

The two met when he played trumpet and she sang for La Sonora. On July 14, they celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary. Celia was the rare celebrity who didn't throw diva tantrums, didn't whine about the work and didn't trade on anything but her talent. Old School to the end, there was an unwavering dignity to the way she lived her private life. It remained just that -- private.

So much that recently, when talk-show star Cristina Saralegui hooked up with Whoopi Goldberg to plan a film project about Celia's life, some in the film industry scratched their heads. The collective question: How do you write a compelling screenplay about somebody whose life had no apparent Tina Turner tragedy, no Behind the Music crash and burn, no tabloid-worthy scandal?

''It's a story about a rags-to-riches talent that could not be denied,'' said Marcos Avila, Saralegui's husband and a co-producer, who has written a first draft. ``She wasn't necessarily beaten or raped, but it's an amazing story of a Latin woman, a black Latin woman, who achieved greatness through a lot of hardships that she always kept to herself.''

If Celia had down days, she never let on. Those who met her were treated to a warm, joyous magic that never seemed to falter. She was, after all, the woman who spread that trademark ''Azuuuca!'' -- sugar -- throughout the world.

She may have been called queen, but she was famous for her down-to-earth charm. If you met her two or three times, you likely wound up on her greeting card list. No matter how busy her schedule, Celia took the time to write a hello from Madrid, or a Feliz Navidad from Fort Lee. It was always in her own hand.

''We would ask her to appear in concerts featuring a constellation of Latin stars,'' said Eduardo González Rubio, a longtime Cuban radio personality on WQBA. 'She arguably was the biggest star, but she was always very simple. Everybody else would fight about the lineup, `Put me first, put me last.' But Celia always said, 'Put me wherever you want.' ''

Fidel Castro was the only topic that seemed to ruffle her gentle demeanor. On April 7, 1962, her mother died in Cuba. But Celia wasn't allowed to return for the burial. The government, which saw her as a traitor, did everything in its power to erase her from the collective memory. Celia Cruz records were considered contraband. They circulated anyway, and her freshest hits were beamed from Miami radio to the island's still-fervent fans. She made more than 76 records, won two Grammys and three Latin Grammys, appeared in several films (including The Mambo Kings and The Pérez Family), collected honorary degrees from Yale, the University of Miami and Florida International University, scored a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and was immortalized in wax.

But she was most proud of taking Cuban music to every corner of the world. Her biggest dream was to go back home, even if just for a last glimpse. But she refused to do it with Castro in power.

``If I wasn't allowed into Cuba to visit my mother's grave, why would I go now? I adore my country. I miss it terribly. But New Jersey is home now. It may not look like Santos Suárez, but then, Santos Suárez doesn't look like Santos Suárez. It's turned to dirt.''

The closest she ever came was a trip to the Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay in 1990, where she performed in a celebration that honored Cubans who worked on the base.


''She was crying the whole time,'' said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who traveled with her. ``She walked over to the fence that separates the base from the rest of Cuba and reached through to take soil from the Cuban side. Then something eerie happened. She was performing on this very hot, still day. But all of a sudden, the Cuban flag starts to ripple. There was no wind, and the base's flag that was a few feet away didn't move. But the Cuban flag was waving. We were all astounded.''

Celia never lived in Miami, but she treated the city like a second hometown. She had requested that her body be flown to Miami after her death then returned to the Northeast for burial, her publicist said Wednesday. A memorial is being planned for Saturday at the downtown Freedom Tower.

For more than 20 years, she was the singing, pleading force behind th5e annual telethon put on by the La Liga Contra El Cáncer, which benefits local Hispanic cancer patients.

In the 1970s, as Cuban Miami surged, her voice echoed through el exilio. ''Yo llevo a Cuba la voz, desde esta playa lejana,'' [I send to Cuba my voice, from this distant beach] she sang in a catchy jingle for WQBA, then called La Cubanísima.

''I called her señora twice over,'' said Cándido Camero, a conga great who played with everybody from Arsenio Rodríguez and Machito's Afro-Cubans to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

''Because she was a señora on the stage and she was a señora in life,'' Camero, 82, said from his New York home.

Celia Cruz Discography

Pulpa De Tamarindo (Tamarind Pulp), year unknown

Juntos (Together), year unknown

El Pai Y La Mai, 1951

Rumba Para Parejas (Rumba for Couples), 1951

Mambo Del Amor (Mambo of Love), 1951

La Guagua (The Bus), 1951

La Danza Del Cocoyé (The Dance of the Cocoyé), 1951

Melao De Caña (Cane Syrup), 1953

Boncó, 1953

Nuevo Ritmo Omelenkó (New Rhythm Omelenkó), 1953

Burundanga, 1953

A Todos Mis Amigos (For All My Friends), 1953

Matiagua, 1953

En El Bajío (In The Lowland), 1954

Saoco, 1954

Y Mi Negro Está Cansado (And My Black Man Is Tired), 1954

Juancito Trucupey, 1954

Pá La Paloma (For the Dove), 1954

Oyá Diosa Y Fe (Oyá, Goddess and Faith), 1954

Mi Soncito (My Little Son), 1955

Cont. El Marinero (The Sailor Continued), 1955

El Merengue, 1955

Muñecas De Cha Cha Chá (Cha Cha Chá Dolls), 1955

Oyela, Gózala (Hear It, Enjoy It), 1955

Yerbero Moderno (Modern Herbalist), 1955

Goza Negra (Enjoy It, Black Woman), 1955

Sandunguéate (Shake It Up), 1955

Celia Cruz En Vivo Radio Progreso, Vol. 1 (unknown)

Celia Cruz En Vivo Radio Progreso, Vol. 2, 1955

Celia Cruz En Vivo Radio Progreso, Vol. 3, 1956

Mi Amor Buenas Noches (Good Night My Love), 1956

Rock and Roll, 1956

El Lleva Y Trae (The Coming and Going), 1956

Me Voy a Pinar Del Río (I'm Going to Pinar Del Río), 1956

Tuya Y Más Que Tuya (Yours and More Than Yours), 1956

Luna Sobre Matanzas (Moon Over Matanzas), 1956

Contentosa (Contented), 1956

Gozando (Enjoying), 1956

No Encuentro Palabras (Words Fail Me), 1956

La Merenguita, 1956

Ipso Calypso, 1957

La Sopa En Botella (Soup In a Bottle), 1957

Mi Tumba Se Rompió (My Conga Drum is Broken), 1958

Mi Coquito (My Little Coconut Patty), 1958

Jingle Bells, 1958

Aguinaldo Antillano (Antillean Christmas Gift), 1958

Baho, Kende, 1958

Poco a Poco (Little By Little), 1958

Qué Voy a Hacer (What Am I To Do), 1958

Madre Rumba (Mother Rumba), 1958

Dile Que Por Mí No Tema (Tell Him Not to Fear for Me), 1958

Bajo La Luna (Beneath the Moon), 1958

Changó Ta Vení (Changó Arrived), 1958

La Negrita Sandunguera (The Little Black Shaker), 1958

Camadde, 1958

Dime La Verdad (Tell Me the Truth), 1959

Sueños De Luna (Dreams of the Moon), 1959

Así Quiero Morir (That's How I Want to Die), 1959

Crocante Habanero (Havana Peanut Brittle), 1959

Ya Te Lo Dije (I Already Told You), 1960

Caramelos (Candies), 1960

Mágica Luna (Magic Moon), 1960

Marcianita (Little Martian Girl), 1960

La Incomparable Celia (The Incomparable Celia), 1958

Mi Diario Musical (My Musical Diary), 1959

Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos (Flavor and Rhythm of the People), 1965

Canciones Premiadas (Prized Songs), 1965

Cuba y Puerto Rico Son, 1966

Son con Guaguanco, 1966

Bravo, 1967

A Ti Mexico, Con La Sonora de Memo Salamanca (For You Mexico, With the Memo Salamanca Band), 1967

La Excitante (The Exciting Woman), 1968

Serenata Guajira (Peasant Serenade), 1968

Quimbo Quimbumbia, 1969

Etc. Etc. Etc., 1970

Celia Cruz & Tito Puente: Algo Especial Para Recordar (Something Special to Remember), 1972

Celia Cruz & Fania All Stars, Live in Africa, 1974

Celia & Johnny, 1974

Recordando el Ayer (Remembering Yesterday), 1976

Tremendo Cache (Great Cachet), 1975

Only They Could Have Made This Album, 1977

Brillante (Brilliant), 1978

Eternos (Eternally), 1978

A Todo Mis Amigos (For All My Friends), 1978

La Ceiba (The Ceiba Tree), 1979

Celia, Johnny & Pete: Johnny Pacheco, Pete "El Conde'' Rodriguez, Celia Cruz, 1980

Celia & Willie, 1981

Feliz Encuentro (Happy Reunion), 1982

Celia Cruz, Adalberto Santiago, Ray Barretto: Tremendo Trio (Tremendous Trio), 1983

Homenaje a Beny More, Vol. 3, 1985

De Nuevo (Anew), 1986

La Candela (The Flame), 1986

The Winners, 1987

Ritmo en el Corazon (Rhythm In the Heart), 1988

La Guarachera del Mundo (The Guarachera of the World), 1990

La Verdadera Historia (The True History), 1992

Tributo a Ismael Rivera, 1992

Introducing, 1993

Azucar Negra (Black Sugar), 1993

Azucar! (Sugar), 1993

Boleros, 1993

Homenaje a Los Santos (Homage to the Saints), 1994

Las Guaracheras de La Guaracha (The Guaracheras of the Guaracha Music), 1994

Mambo del Amor (Mambo of Love), 1994

Merengue, Saludos Amigos (Merengue, Greetings Friends), 1994

Irrepetible (Unrepeatable), 1994

Cuba's Queen of Rhythm, 1995

Irresistible, 1995

Festejando Navidad (Celebrating Christmas), 1995

Double Dynamite, 1995

Celia Cruz, 1996

Alma con Alma, The Heart & Soul of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, 1996

Tambien Boleros (Boleros, Too), 1997

Duets, 1997

Cambiando Ritmos (Changing Rhythms), 1997

Afro-Cubana, 1998

Mi Vida Es Cantar (My Life is to Sing), 1998

Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, 2000

Salsa, 2000

Siempre Vivire (I Will Always Live), 2000

Habanera, 2000

At the Beginning, 2001

La Negra Tiene Tumbao (The Black Woman Has Tumbao), 2001

Edicion Limitada (Limited Edition), 2002

Unrepeatable, 2002

Carnival de Exitos (Carnival of Hits), 2002

Las Estrellas de la Sonora Matancera (The Stars of the Matancera Band), 2003

Regalo del Alma (Gift from the Soul), 2003

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