June 22, 2024


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Celia Cruz: The voice of experience: Videos, Photos

The last time I saw Celia Cruz perform was in Central Park in 2002, one of her final shows, when SummerStage was less managed and thus more exciting. Cruz would often save her signature “Bemba Colora” as the encore an audience had to deserve.

Over time it became a relied-upon catharsis for her public to recognize their ancient past and to air their damaged present. On that late afternoon descended an out-of-nowhere, fire-and-brimstone summer thunderstorm. The mighty Celia, at 76 years old and not feeling at all well, refused to waver. She battled out hail, wiring, metallic stagecraft and every possible scenario considered dangerous, and kept singing. It was celestial conjure. The weather wanted to meet her, match her, counterpoint her song. We remained because she remained. We kept dancing while she threw lightning bolts back at the sky.

There is an official recording of the performance where we can’t hear all these elements. How wonderful to imagine — or better yet, assume — that on any recording there is all kinds of stormy material that might escape the ear. To write about women musicians is to dive into the recorded surface while fighting the demand to reveal everything about them in the time and space allotted. Celia Cruz, famously private, has left behind all the biographical data she wanted to tell. Books and essays have been written. Inaccuracies abound. Given the difficult geopolitical contours to her history, many have made an impossible mission to get her record straight. Her dance between the various positions she chose and was forced to embody are made too big a distraction from her hard work in the studio, cabaret, stadium. The work now and going forward is to listen hard to what Celia Cruz didn’t, or couldn’t tell us outright, but had been singing all along. What was there and what remains all contribute to the truism that it is impossible to write about Cruz without some recourse to the divine.

For the sheer magnitude and span of her career, Celia Cruz is an active lesson in the long view. For many girls, to be able to grow up with Cruz is much more than celebrating a singular case of a woman who made it. In life and afterlife Celia tells them that they can get old, and that with the getting old there’s a getting better. Her heroic discipline for staying around, active, prescient, meant all manner of experiences were lived while listening to her, with her, as her. For the girls-at-heart made to take up the matriarchal helm too early, the memory of Celia and her music are both examples and symbols that the elders remain fast and strong.

And yet for all her beautiful extension, part of the bungled narrative of Cruz’s career is the great cleave that tragically divides her Cuba work from her U.S.-based work. The year is given as 1960 when she left the island. The division for Cruz and so many others was tragic but not a terminus. Writings about Celia can’t seem to handle these two halves, or use some version of “spatial constraints,” to deaden the complexity of a fragmented life. The unfair overlay of her musical career with oppressive wet blankets of Cold War positions has too often left her exquisite musicianship underexamined and untheorized. (And anyways, her choice to reside in New Jersey, and not Miami or New York, has always been a kind of tell.) Nor can any of this narrative traffic ever quite handle how Cuba has long resided, especially musically, inside the U.S., continually and regardless. A musician’s clock should not and cannot be reset upon their arrival to the U.S. To the larger record of women who impact American music, it is not solely a matter of inclusion of the elsewhere born, but to render the U.S. as a middle, or even penultimate stop, to a full musical itinerary.

Let’s go to the Cruzian school, to “la vieja guardia” (the old guard) as she used to say right before tucking a classic Cuban recording into her live sets. I turn, on her cue, to the old guard because there is too quick a jump made to Celia, without antecedent, Queen of Salsa. The definition of Salsa — whether made in beloved and/or hostile company — can shift depending on time, location, who’s around. It is nevertheless, at its historic core, an entrepreneurial plot that did much to erase the generic complexity of Latinate musics in New York and elsewhere. It instituted a very select personnel of whom Cruz was virtually the only woman let in by its young producers. With a selection from her vieja guardia, we get to hear what she brought with her — and other stormy material that no one could make up or anticipate — to make the ’70s salsa heyday swing like it did. But perhaps more importantly and most vitally, we get to listen closely and to spend time with an earlier song over a plentiful repertoire that reminds us that performers come from somewhere, and this affirmation of engaging the past enlivens our present. I invite some homework with one of her recordings made with the bountiful creative laboratory that trained so many great Latina vocalists, the supergroup La Sonora Matancera. Listen to Cruz’s take on the Dominican composer Bienvenido Fabián’s “Tuya Más Que Tuya” (Yours more than yours), a bolero cha chá recorded in Cuba, and heavily distributed in the United States in 1956.


She sings the following 10 lines, twice:

Ya yo no quiero saber en la vida
de otras caricias que no sean las tuyas
yo te idolatro, vida de mi vida
todas las noches sueño que me arrullas
cuando despierto me siento más tuya
y te bendigo, bien de mi vida

Qué bien se vive cuando se ama mucho
también se sufre, se gime y se llora
pero no importa si hay mucho cariño
cuando se tiene algún ser que se adora

(English translation)
I don’t want to know anything more in life
of caresses that are not yours
I idolize you, life of my life
Every night I dream that you lull me to sleep
And when I wake I feel even more yours
And I bless you, light of my life

How good it is to live when loving so much
It is also to suffer, moan and weep
But it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of affection
When you have someone that you adore

I’m yours, and what’s more, I’m yours. We are swiftly introduced to some Cuban dexterity with the hyperbolic. The first “yours” doesn’t quite get at it. Title and feeling requires a double-down second “yours” to fully mark self for other. Being yours is made expansive, immeasurable — and yet it all occurs in a song that is 2 minutes and 50 seconds long. This song reveals Cruz’s magisterial work with the short form. The old kind of short form that held an entire world rather than the current chop and meme. The song is shorter than some voicemails. It showcases Cruz’s characteristic vocal determination. It is everything but tentative yet it retains a dulcet secret.

Bolero is the exact thing needed to explain everything publicly but is meant to keep the voracious toggle of amorous intensity and hurt between you and you. There’s nowhere for it to go and Cruz knows it. She compresses it all inside the song, even in the real time of recording it for a vast public. The unashamed overamplification of love, of giving possession of the body over to the song’s intended, and without the voice bearing any signs of falling apart, announce the grit and guts of Cruz’s interpretation. Listen to Cruz’s ability to stretch and bend words so that they make otherworldly time inside an imposed time. The upturned last vowels, her gorgeous “r”s, the cascade downwards when talking about life’s only true worthwhile activity in a bolero set in a danceable cha chá gives rise to midcentury after-hours as made in Havana and Mexico City and New York. Imagine all that activity for those who were at the clubs, and even more importantly, for those who for various reasons had to stay at home.

Inside the song, it is as if Cruz, though completely unapologetic about it, knows that the whole affair begins to be too much. And so, in a nanosecond decision, the kind of decision that betrays hours of rehearsal, she gives over to Ezequiel “Lino” Frías’s piano solo. Voice meets piano in perfect conversant union. And to his eternal credit, Frías meets her there, and incidentally, he may have been one of the few to musically meet her there. In Cruz we hear a preparedness and a pleasure and an overall do-what-you-can in the cramped space that you’ve got or been given. But for goodness sake (she always seemed to demand) make it tight and right while there! This isn’t a voyeuristic thrill in listening, but a respect of how people make-do in music, and a reveal into how — as Gema Corredera once sang it — a bolero can save your life. When the song is over, I hope you can feel (as many of us do), that you have just had a complete experience. The twofold question that lingers on many minds within Cruz’s audiences: How does she do it? And what ride do we all agree to take when we listen to her?

This is just one song inside Cruz’s complete repertoire, a basket of pearls, one pearl where we may find her complete repertoire. In “Tuya Más Que Tuya” we can hear her preparedness for everything else to come. It is a song that reminds us that Celia Cruz was one person with robust histories, and through her adopted capital locations, in New York and otherwise, she produced new sounds for and with others, rain and shine.

Alexandra T. Vazquez is Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. She is the author of Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (Duke University Press 2013, winner of the American Studies Association’s Lora Romero Book Prize). Vazquez’s work has been featured in the journals American Quarterly, small axe, Social Text, women and performance, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and in the edited volumes Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, Reggaeton and Pop When the World Falls Apart. She is a graduate of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida. Vazquez is currently working on two book projects: The Florida Room and Music and Migrancy: Miami Experiments with Performance (1965-1995).

By the time I saw Celia Cruz in concert, she had already released more than 40 albums over the course of a career that spanned nearly half a century and had long established herself as the reigning Queen of Salsa. It was the spring of 1995 at the Aragon Ballroom in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, and the city was just beginning its muddy thaw.

She was 69; I was 24. One of us managed to sing and dance until the early morning hours without a break.

During our time in Chicago, we’d all forged a bond through the rituals of intellectual debate, frequent huddling on blustery elevated train platforms and, above all, regular salsa dancing. One of us was a Puerto Rican raised in California and shaped by years of Jesuit education who’d traveled to Cuba to cut cane during the Special Period; another was a Chilean conguero whose family was forced to leave Santiago after Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and who grew up in Indiana. One of us was a Hampton-educated black American military brat born on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base when her father was stationed there in the early ’70s; and then there was me, a Tejana with flimsy Spanish who’d learned how to gallop along to a Mexican cumbia long before I’d ever learned to catch the Caribbean clave beat.

Salsa, a musical genre that has long defied classification and a singular origin story, is generally understood to have developed in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City during a period marked by the generative contact among growing numbers of Latinx immigrants from throughout Latin America and most especially from across the Caribbean. Nationalist sentiments inform the longstanding debates about salsa’s origins. There are some (like Cruz herself) who claim that salsa emerged primarily from Cuban musical styles like son, guaracha and rumba. Others trace its roots to the confluence of Latin American styles like Puerto Rican bomba and Colombian cumbias as well as Cuban traditions. Some of us agree with all of the above; salsa scholar Frances Aparicio defines salsa as “a conjunction of Afro-Cuban music (el son) and rhythms of Puerto Rican bombas and plenas, and of African American jazz instrumentation and structures.”

Salsa’s Afro-diasporic rhythms keep your center of gravity low as you move across space and its Spanish-language lyrics keep your mind moving from romantic love to commentaries about the social and political conditions of Latinx life. Rhythmically, lyrically and kinesthetically, salsa carries in it and urges us to move within the traditions of survival and innovation among communities historically subjected to plantation slavery and the forces of migration across the Americas. In other words, salsa is quintessentially American music.

Cruz’s voice is synonymous with salsa. It is earth and star, the iron heated until it glows and struck until it curves, a warm and deep contralto that melts the boundaries of gender. Rich as molasses but agile as the hand wielding the knife that cuts the cane. A voice whose sonorous tones and dexterous enunciations capture both the toils and virtuosity of black Cuban labor and the delight in the fruit it bears.

It’s hard to overemphasize the significance of Cruz’s presence as a black woman, of the sound of her voice resounding within and hovering above the overwhelmingly (and indeed, at that time, exclusively) male-dominated and hyper-masculinist realm of salsa. Sure, there was Cruz’s contemporary, La Lupe, a woefully underappreciated and ultimately ostracized female vocalist, but the salsa industry only made room for one woman in that era and that woman was Celia Cruz. Luckily for me, her voice carried past that moment in time, carried within it lessons in presence and stamina.

Salsa experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1990s due, for better or worse, to the widespread commercialization of the genre. But even as salsa and countless other “Latin” products were discovered and marketed as part of a larger cultural “Latin Boom,” many of us continued to mark out a hallowed space for ourselves on the rapidly commodifying dancefloor. For Aparicio and for those of us who spent the better part of the 1990s dancing to its rhythms, salsa was in many ways “the quintessential musical marker of latinidad [Latinx identification] in the United States and in Latin America.” The salsa from this period, generally referred to as salsa romántica, is often derided for its lack of musical sophistication or lyrical gravitas that marked salsa music of the golden era in the 1960s and 1970s. And while this claim is not entirely wrong, it fails to account for the feminist interventions in the genre made by salsa artists of the 1990s like La India and for the enduring presence and contributions of Cruz herself.

By the time my friends and I arrived at the Aragon Ballroom, we’d endured winter by making the rounds to several of the thriving local salsa clubs or to each other’s living rooms where we’d clear the furniture to make space for dancing. In regular rotation that year were songs like the title track from Cruz’s 1993 album Azucar Negra and La India’s 1994 feminist salsa anthem, “Ese Hombre.” In Cruz’s song we could hear the pronouncement of black diasporic blood memory — “mi sangre es azucar negra” (“my blood is black sugar”) — and an insistence that salsa would carry us through the everyday and the holy days — “soy calle y soy carnaval” (“I am the street and the carnival”). Her song reminded us that the rhythms to which we moved were drawn from both the source of our people’s long laboring and were, as well, its exalted product — “soy la caña y el café” (“I am the cane and the coffee”).

For us, Cruz’s longevity created a space for the arrival of La India, a Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-bred salsera from our generation who got her start in the Latin freestyle music scene in the mid-1980s. In La India’s song (frequently played on repeat at home and always requested of the club’s DJ), we rejoiced in her rueful subversion of the romántica trope and structure of salsa romántica. Her lyrics begin, “Ese hombre que tu ves ahi / que parace tan galante” (“That man that you see over there / who seems so gallant”), and then just as the horns blare and your body launches into its first sequence of moves, she turns generic convention on its head with the chorus, “Es un gran necio / un payaso vanidoso” (“Is a great fool / a vain clown”).

Both Cruz’s and La India’s songs played on the same dance mixes that we made or DJ set lists that spun at the clubs during that time. For us, Cruz was not just an emblem of salsa’s grand past but a relevant and vibrant force that continued to charge its present and shape its future. She continually reinvented herself over time while maintaining an immutable sense of her signature divinity like a classic diva. So, sure, we flocked to her concert that spring because we wanted to be in the presence of a living legend, to bow (and turn and glide and shuffle and spin) before the Queen. But, mostly, as 20-something-year-olds, we came because we wanted to dance to rhythms that resonated with our current lives. We understood that as a true diva, Cruz was of her time and capable of transcending it. We came because we had faith in her power to transport us along with her across this continuum.

By the time Cruz took to the Aragon Ballroom stage in her custom-made, gravity-defying shoes and called out to us with her signature shout — ¡Azucar! — it was 1 a.m. By then, I’d already broken a sweat warming up to the opening acts and had even taken a brief disco nap on the bench of a booth while the ice melted in my cocktail. Cruz opened her mouth, the band lifted their horns and we came together on the dancefloor.

Some of us danced “on the 1” (step-step-step-pause); others “on the 2” (pause-step-step-step). To those who were perhaps more sophisticated (or maybe just more rigid) than we were at the time, what you danced on or where you took the pause in salsa was often regarded as a defining measure of authenticity. The pause, as dance scholar Cindy Garcia observes, “is the most crucial component of the dance — potentially sensual and volatile.” Maybe because we were naïve or maybe because we knew we’d never measure up or maybe because of our developing feminist consciousness, we just took turns taking the lead. Whether on the one or on the two, for us, it all added up to a sum greater than our individual parts. To learn how to salsa was to learn about your relationship to time, about how to measure it and move to it and dwell in its pauses.

That night at the Aragon, Cruz sang out, “La rumba me esta llamando” (“The rumba is calling me”), the opening lyrics of her signature 1974 hit “Quimbara,” and we answered the call. I danced to the song with my girlfriends, sharing the lead, feeling for the pause and trying to keep up with Cruz’s vocal gymnastics and the tempo’s wild acceleration. Salsa dancing was how we were coming to know who we were in relation to one another as fellow black and brown women. And dancing to “Quimbara,” with its impossibly fast rhythms and tumbling lyrics, not only offered us a source of deeply embodied pleasure but trained us to outmaneuver and outspeak and outrun any foes who sought to hunt us down.

The year after her concert at the Aragon, Cruz recorded a duet with La India called “La Voz de la Experiencia.” The song, written by La India, is at once an homage to Cruz as La Reina de La Salsa and an enactment of the crowning of La India, La Princesa de La Salsa, as the successor to the throne.

The duet moves from batá drumming to high brass, from secular salsa romántica arrangements to invocations of the Yoruba deity, Yemaya. Throughout, the women take turns admiring one another, and their declarations act as well as an acknowledgement of the larger cultural and national influences each woman brings to the genre as an Afro-Cuban and a New York City-raised Puerto Rican. Thus, both musically and lyrically, as Frances Aparicio has written, the song acknowledges and embodies the diasporic range of salsa’s traditions rather than succumbing to the nationalist tendencies that have framed the debates about salsa’s origins. It’s no surprise to me that it took two women singing together in a predominantly masculine genre for this to happen.

On the surface, the duet is framed as a lesson in diva mentorship with La India seeking counsel and Cruz, as the anointed “voice of experience,” imparting her wisdom about how to make it as a woman in the business: “Con profesionalismo, creyendo en uno mismo / Se siempre original, nunca vayas a cambiar / Tienes que estar en control / Ten control control”(“With professionalism, believing in yourself / Always be original, never change / You’ve got to be in control / Have control, control”). Admittedly, the advice is, at best, aphoristic. But for me, that’s not where the song’s power lies. What continues to inspire me even after all these years is the sound of two women unabashedly worshiping one another in a highly exclusionary space that would otherwise have them competing for the one token “girl” spotlight.

It’s a song they sang together live on a number of occasions, most notably, perhaps, during Cruz’s televised concert for PBS, Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, that took place in Hartford, Conn. on May 12, 1999. By the time La India joins Cruz onstage that night for their duet, the audience is already dancing in the crowded aisles and Cruz has changed her costume from a rumba-style ruffled polka-dotted dress to a dazzlingly sequined floor-length outfit (with matching headpiece, of course) composed of multi-colored, diamond-shaped geometric prints.

Watching the footage of it now, exactly twice the age I was when I first saw Cruz at the Aragon, what I find moving is how the duet showcases two women of some experience — neither of whom what anyone would call thin or young or fair-skinned — publicly performing their mutual adoration and encouraging each other’s virtuosic capacities, their voices barreling across time and space, their bodies catching the clave as they dance cucaracha side steps in sync with one another. Knowing who they are in relation to one another as fellow black and brown women.

By the time I write this, it’s the last days of a summer marred by the targeted massacre of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in El Paso, migrant refugees dying in detention along the border, continued governmental disregard of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and ICE raids targeting undocumented workers in the Midwest, and I’m not much in the mood to talk about singing and dancing. But then, hasn’t salsa always ever been in some ways about the struggles embedded in and transformed through its lyrics and rhythms? Isn’t Cruz’s voice made of the soil on which we’ve toiled, the earth and the harvest our people have culled from it? ¡Azucar!

At the end of the performance of their duet in 1999, La India falls to her knees at Cruz’s feet in a grand diva successor act of worship. Cruz immediately responds matter-of-factly with the command, “¡Levantate! ¡Levantate!” Get up, she instructs. It’s time to get to our feet. Time to rise. There’s work to be done. New movements to learn and to join. Tienes que estar en control. Ten control control.

Deborah Paredez is a poet and performance scholar and the author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. She is co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latinx poets, and a professor of creative writing and ethnic studies at Columbia University. She’s currently at work on a book about divas.

Celia Cruz performs in New York in 1995. That same year, Deborah Paredez saw her at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. "Cruz opened her mouth, the band lifted their horns and we came together on the dancefloor," she says.

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