CELIA CRUZ

This is a reprint of a very interesting article which appeared in the LA Times Sunday,10-24-04 by Agustin Gurza, Times Staff Writer

More than 2 years after the death of Cuban singer Celia Cruz, the public's fascination with her lives on. Almost weekly, it seems, we get a new book, DVD documentary or CD compilation summoning up the woman whose career spanned more than half a century. It's no cliché to say Cruz was one of a kind.


This grande dame was the only female vocalist to achieve broad acceptance and sustained success in the male-dominated world of Afro-Caribbean music.

After Cruz, salsa is all testosterone, or so it seems. Her voice had a husky timbre - manifested in her guttural trademark growl of "Azucar!" - that suited modern salsa, an inherently aggressive genre, like rap or rock. But she had something that her male counterparts could never muster, a maternal tenderness that melted even the most hard-bitten barrio street fans.

Cruz was the queen bee among competitive men who never challenged her preeminence. Without her as a unifying figure, the salsa scene seems scattered and somehow smaller. Her absence accentuates a great void in salsa music - the virtual lack of successful female artists. And it begs a question rarely asked while she was alive: Who are the pretenders to the still-vacant throne of the Queen of Salsa?
Even the most ardent salsa fans would be hard put to name three legitimate candidates from the salsa world. Cuba is the only country that has groomed a new

 

 Celia Cruz - "Quimbara" (Live in Africa)

generation of female salsa singers, some very talented, but the political climate has made it difficult for them to find fame beyond the island.

Perhaps the best known of the new Cuban generation is Haila Mompie, ex-vocalist with the popular timba band Bamboleo. But there are others worth rescuing from relative anonymity, including two of the best: Lucrecia and Yaqueline Castellanos, who live in exile in Europe.


Celia Cruz - "La Vida Es Un Carnaval"
Of course, some say Cruz is irreplaceable - not only for her sweet and sonorous voice, drenched in Cuba's African roots, rhythm and religion, but also for her special charm that endeared her to generations of fans regardless of age, color or politics. Over time, the music changed, but Cruz didn't. She embodied Old World values in her ladylike demeanor. As a single woman, she always had a chaperon. From the mid-'60s on, she usually appeared onstage with her husband, Pedro Knight, who guided her career and guarded her image.

Paradoxically, says one salsa historian, the secret to Cruz's longevity lies in the conservative female role she played in a male-dominated business.

"Celia was a product of her time," says New York-based writer and researcher
            Aurora Flores. "She was very, very protected. And she was the good girl. She
            was not a troublemaker. She wasn't a diva. Whatever the guys said, that's
            what she would do."

Those qualities helped her rise above an environment in which women are considered mere perks for male performers, along with drugs and alcohol, says Flores.  Cruz was so reserved she never said how old she was,
joking that ladies don't admit their age. Like soul singer Aretha Franklin, she sometimes ignored the effects of age by occasionally squeezing into gowns too tight for her bulging figure. But as with jazz stylist Ella Fitzgerald, the essence of Cruz was her femininity, not her sexuality.

Celia Cruz "Oye Como Va"

As counterpoint, Flores cites the tragic case of the late Guadalupe Yoli, better known as La Lupe, another Cuban exile who briefly overshadowed Cruz in the New York salsa scene of the 1960s, when both women recorded separately with Tito Puente. Far from deferential, La Lupe was "on the wild side," notes Flores. She was married, but "you didn't see her with her husband." Onstage, she disrobed, yanked her hair, bit herself and beat her musicians. Offstage, she was outspoken, used drugs and had affairs. In other words, she behaved like the men. Her career soon crashed and she became destitute and homeless. La Lupe died in 1992, just as the fourth phase of Cruz's career was about to take off.


           "The industry tore her apart," recalls Flores of La Lupe. "They blacklisted
    her. They closed the doors on her. The men could not deal with her sexuality, her outspokenness and her own sense of who she was as an artist,   her demands."

The search is on! No other major female lead singer emerged on the salsa scene until the early 1990s, when Eddie Palmieri introduced La India (born Linda Caballero), a Nuyorican who got her start in Latin house and hip-hop.  From the start, she was groomed as a young Cruz, crowned not too subtly as "La Princesa de la Salsa." For a time, the women recorded for the now-defunct RMM label, and they were often paired onstage. But the strategy only highlighted the younger singer's screechy shortcomings.  La India never had Cruz's vocal range, charisma, rhythmic prowess or - and this is crucial - her ability to improvise. In salsa, singers are prized for their talent as impromptu lyricists during the call-and-response portion of salsa songs.  Cruz was a master of the art that requires imagination and split-second timing.


Celia Cruz -"La Negra Tiene Tumbao"
After RMM went bankrupt, Cruz continued to find late-life success on Sony. Meanwhile, La India, who had defied male record executives by refusing to lose weight, dropped from sight in the late '90s. Though she continues to record, she has not reclaimed her popularity.
The only other U.S.-based female salsa artists who come close to Cruz's fame are Albita and Gloria Estefan. But Estefan is more of a pop singer, certainly not a sonera, as salsa's improvisational singers are known. And Albita, though talented, never found a wide audience.

Even Puerto Rico, an island hotbed of salsa, has not produced a female lead singer of any major significance in recent memory. That leaves only one place left to look - back to Cruz's native Cuba. As usual, Cuba is an anomaly. In recent years, it produced several excellent female performers, some of who not only sing but arrange, compose and play instruments. The problem is they're known only to the most die-hard Cubanophiles who travel to Cuba or track down their hard-to-find records through European outlets. Cuba has had a tradition of women in salsa, starting with the first all-female salsa band, Septeto Anacaona. Formed by seven sisters in 1932, the band continues to this day, infused with new members and new musical styles.
Among recent Anacaona alumni is Lucrecia, a pianist and songwriter who moved to Barcelona about 10 years ago and launched a solo career. She is perhaps the most polished of the new singers, with a silky, jazz-influenced style and a fashionable look, her hair in multicolored braids. In Spain, Lucrecia has made several wonderful, well-produced solo albums and collaborations, including one with percussionist Patato and Paquito D'Rivera titled "Tres Generaciones."

"It wasn't easy in Cuba either, because this whole pop music thing is more masculine," says the singer by phone from her home in Barcelona. "But after [the revived] Anacaona came out, a bunch of women groups appeared. It was amazing." (Among the female bands that have cropped up in Cuba recently are Son Damas and Las Cecilias.)
Castellanos, who left Cuba in 1995, believes women and men of equal talent have an equal chance in the business

Celia Cruz - "Que le den candela"  

Success depends on good promotion, she says, and luck. Her luck, however, has not been the best, she says. In Havana, her 1992 debut CD established her credentials as a genuine sonera, winning top honors from EGREM, the Cuban government record label. But it only came out in cassette, she says, because of a shortage of vinyl.  Castellanos recalls listening to smuggled cassettes of Cruz, whose music was banned for a time in Cuba. She had dreams of performing with the queen onstage at Havana's Carlos Marx Theater. But her only chance to meet the late star, a festival in Spain, was doused by rain, says Castellanos, who moved to Germany last year with her new husband and grown daughters, also musicians.

    "Today, the new generation of Cuban women is making its mark," said
            Castellanos recently from her home in Stuttgart, where she performs with her
            husband's band, Tokame. "But to replace Celia, that would be too much of a
            challenge. I'll follow her path, but to say I could take her place, I don't dare."

http://www.celiacruzonline.com