This is a reprint of a very interesting
article which appeared in the LA Times
Sunday,10-24-04 by Agustin Gurza, Times
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.
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
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
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.
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.
a product of her time," says New York-based writer
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."
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.
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.
industry tore her apart," recalls Flores of La Lupe.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
the new generation of Cuban women is making its
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."