Afrobella of the Week: Celia Cruz, In Living Color

**Ugh, sorry about missing you yesterday, bellas. I woke up with a sore throat and a stuffy nose, and today’s even worse! I’ll be drinking lots of vitamin C and getting all the rest I can. So bear with me if I’m a little sluggish. Back to your regularly scheduled Afrobella post.

Living here in Miami, you hear jokes all the time that this city isn’t quite a part of the United States. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home here! The plant life and weather is very similar to what I grew up with in Trinidad. Miami’s proximity to the South America and the Caribbean — most specifically to Cuba and Haiti — means that there’s a very culturally expressive population of immigrants. The wonderful side effect of having such diversity is exposure to new foods, cultural practices, and music. If I didn’t live in Miami, I might have heard of Celia Cruz, but her music, her vivid brightness of spirit, may never have illuminated my life.

I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t have any idea what she’s singing for the most part. But I connect with Celia’s smile, and I find her aura of happiness to be absolutely infectious. She always came across my kind of lady — loving her makeup and her bright clothes and fancy shoes, but always remaining a humble, down-to-earth, approachable sort of icon. That stemmed from her background.

She was born Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso, and was raised in an extended family of fourteen children in the Santos Suárez neighborhood of Havana, Cuba. Her father wanted her to be a teacher (and what a fun teacher she would have been!), but after one of her teachers told her that entertainers make in one day what teachers make in a month, Celia began singing in earnest.

Her first successes were radio contests, where she won cakes for her crooning. By 1950 she was made the lead singer of the famed Cuban orquesta Sonora Matancera, and she won over the hearts of audiences with her style and sense of humor. Her renowned shout, Azucar! began at this early stage of her career, as the punch line of a joke she made on stage. Her life with Sonora Matancera brought her fame and love — her romance with lead trumpeter Pedro Knight lasted throughout both their lives. Knight eventually left the group to become her manager. Celia began to develop her outsize solo persona in performances at the world-famous Tropicana. This rare video clip captures her early energy and the clarity of her voice.

Like many, amidst the political turbulence of Cuba in the 1950′s, she left her homeland. Save for a concert at Guantanamo Bay, Celia never returned.

Celia won fame and fortune in Mexico, and started a salsa revolution in New York City. This must have been a very exciting time for the couple. Pedro Knight became her husband in Connecticut in 1962. After four years of performing with her orchestra at the Palladium Ballroom, she decided to fly solo and true solo success found her in the Sixties. She headlined at Carnegie Hall in 1966, and enjoyed a hit version of Guantanamera. Watch her shake her groove thing back in 1967. She might be filmed in black and white, but that smile has always been technicolor bright.

In 1974, Celia’s collaboration with Johnny Pacheco brought her to a famed group of salsa musicians, the Fania All Stars. With them, she toured the world and brought salsa music to places that had never felt that rhythm before. One of my favorite clips is this one, of Celia in Zaire, wearing the kind of resplendent garb she adored. She married traditional African rhythms with Cuban son, and won the hearts of everyone who listened.

Celia put her own Latin spin on many English songs, including The Beatles’ Ob La Di, Ob La Da. Her version of Yo Vivre (AKA I Will Survive) became a big hit in her later years. The beginning of that clip is so touching and beautiful and vibrant all at the same time. The standing vigilance of her husband Pedro in the audience and the love between them is wonderful to behold. But, there is such a thing as an overbooked all-star performance. Personally, I’d rather have seen more Celia!

Long before Lil Kim’s Crush on You video, Celia was rocking blue and green and crayon yellow wigs with outfits to match. Like John Witherspoon in Boomerang, she had to coordinate. This fantastic video montage celebrates the many different looks of Celia, from all natural afro in the Seventies, to blonde bouffant wig in the Nineties, with stops at every primary color in between.

And although she changed her look often and was embraced as the ultimate symbol of Cuban unity, Celia always celebrated her strong womanhood and black heritage. One of her last hit songs was La Negra Tiene Tumbao, which basically means, the black woman has rhythm.

Celia Cruz died on July 16, 2003, succumbing to brain cancer two days after the 41st anniversary of her marriage to Pedro Knight. I remember the news footage of lines wrapped around Miami’s Freedom Tower, more than 250,000 fans gathered and celebrated her spirit with her trademark cry. Esteemed local journalist Celeste Fraser Delgado captured the atmosphere beautifully. Her beloved Pedro passed away in 2007, and they are both interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is hosting a traveling exhibit, titled Azucar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz. It is currently in Miami at the Bass Museum of Art. Besides music and video clips, the exhibit takes us into her dressing room and displays her makeup case, wigs, false eyelashes, the miniature saints that traveled around the world with her, as well as some of Celia’s brightest and best costumes, like this red and white polka-dot flamenco dress that she wore in her PBS Special in 1999.

Celia Cruz lived her life to the fullest, and gave innumerable people joy along the way. Despite all of her fame and fortune, the Grammy awards and the honorary doctorate degrees and White House visits, she remained warm and loving and irrepressibly bright, always smiling. She is gone, but she will never be forgotten. We miss you, Celia! You continue to inspire afrobellas everywhere!

** an addendum for AppleDiva, who very aptly compared Celia to Patti LaBelle. The two grand divas were friends, and once upon a time there was a fabulous clip of Patti and Celia duetting on YouTube. It’s since been removed, but I was able to find this clip of Patti and Gloria Estefan paying tribute to Celia, who appears to be enjoying their rendition of Quimbara. Patti also sang Ave Maria at Celia’s funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on July 22, 2003.

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Comments

  1. I love Celia Cruz. She was an over the top performer with a great voice. Azucar indeed!

  2. Bella,
    I’m sorry to hear your under the weather and hope you feel better soon. When I read your piece about Celia Cruz, I was all smiles. I don’t speak a word of Spanish, however I love the music. I remember watching a few of her videos and dancing, as if I knew what she was singing about…her happiness and smile of course, drew me into the music. She was truly a shining star…thanks again, for the article.

  3. OMG Bella why are you so fly….

    Azucar negra.

  4. Sherriann says:

    I had the opportunity to see the Smithsonian exhibit when it was here in Washington, DC. It was wonderful, I went home and bought her biography because I wanted to know more! The costumes was fabulous and her shoes were FIERCE!!

    Great post, I really love your site!

  5. Bella,

    Celia Cruz is my girl! I saw the Smithsonian exhibit in D.C. and was impressed with the depth of that exhbit (video footage from the early 60′s, her clothes, dressing room, etc.) After seeing her exhibit I relaxed a little and know they’ll do right by Duke Ellington’s exhibit whenever that comes out. Thanks for putting a spotlight on Celia.

    !Azucar!

  6. There you go – all in my iPod again LOL!!

    Love Celia Cruz. La Negra Tiene Tumbao is on constant rotation for me. I hope that exhibit hits the NY area soon.

    Also, feel better!

  7. Juliana says:

    Thank you for featuring La Guarachera! I loved seeing her perform live and was fortunate that she visited Chicago many times.

  8. I’ve been wondering when you would select Celia Cruz as the Afrobella of the Week. She is truly an Afrobella. Her style and charisma was infectious. I was so sad when she passed. I always wanted to meet her.
    Celia truly emraced her AFRO-Cuban heritage, wearing high Afro Puffs, big kinky hair, and never trying to lighten her skin. I have a pic of her getting off of a plane in (Miami I Believe) with her dark skin and high afro puff contrasting with a white sheath and all eyes were on her. Her shoes we always to die for too!
    Great choice Bella!

  9. Sue Le Vent says:

    I loved that Celia was one of those rare Latina performers who didn’t try to hide her African ancestry.

  10. Black Honey says:

    I love Celia and the picture in your post is my favorite photos. I remember seeing her on the Tonight Show with Tito Puentes before I knew what salsa was (or that there were Afro Latinos). She made quite an impression.

    As I learn more about the Black experience in other countries, I’m always struck at strongly their connection to Africa is (especially compared to those of us born and bred in the US). I think that Celia personifies this.

    Another Afro-Latina whose story I find fascinating is La Lupe (an amazing talent). She’s interesting because she and Celia were contemporaries but their lives went in totally different directions.

  11. Black Honey says:

    I also forgot to add that Susana Baca is amazing Afro Pervian bella. Check her out.

  12. hi bella,
    do you have a rss link? i wanted to add your site to my newsgator subscription and couldn’t find a link.
    Thanks!

  13. Como me encanta Senora Celia Cruz…!
    I have many of her albums/cds – as my mother is Cuban we had her on all the time when I was a kid!
    BRILLIANT Afrobella, just wonderful that you made her Afrobella of the Week
    AAAAaaaaazzzzzzzuuuuuuucar DE VERDAD!!!
    Besos..
    Anita

  14. Krystin says:

    Sorry to here about you feeling under the weather Drink some OJ an eat slirp on some soup and rest lov! But i enjoyed the Celia Cruz clip and is the exhibit still up at the Smithsonian in DC because i will drive up there … thanks

  15. jerseybred says:

    Celia is beautiful. Bella you always manage to pick wonderful pictures of our Afrobellas. I love black and white pictures.

  16. Nikki J says:

    La Negra tiene tumbao!!! I love Celia Cruz. When I was little my babysitter was Cuban and she played Celia all the time. Maybe thats why I have such a passion for Latin music…especially salsa. And Bella how can you not know spanish, don’t you listen to parang?? LOL

  17. I was saddened when she died because she was a treasure. I always enjoyed her fashion style. Patti LaBelle reminds me of Ms. Cruz.. Vivacious and strong voices.

  18. E-Fresh says:

    Remember my home remedy!!

    Feel better.

  19. E-Fresh says:

    Celia is one of the greatest artist of all time. Period.

  20. Dominique says:

    Fantastic! I’m so glad you put her on your blog, she’a absolutely wonderful. And for you mamabellas out there, there’s a great children’s book about her called “My name is Celia Cruz. It is as bold and colorful as she was.

  21. I meant to add that Cesaria Evora is another good afrobella.

  22. BlackHoney says:

    Cesaria Evora another one of my favorites

  23. Adrianna says:

    Viva Celia Cruz!!As a Haitian I grew up listening to her Thanks for making her Afrobella of the week!!

    get Better Bella!

  24. YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!! Love me some Celia!

  25. mezzo_soprano says:

    i am so happy that you included Celia Cruz as Afrobella of the Week. I was going to suggest La Lupe but never got around to it. I am a proud Cuban/Jamaican girl and I grew up listening to all of these ladies you mentioned.
    You really have some great Afrobella picks.

    I have a few suggestions: Ledisi, Maysa, Chaka or Rachelle Ferrell. What ya think??

  26. AZUCAR!!

    La Negra Tiene Tumbao reminds me of my abuelita all day long. She taught us to embrace our heritage full circle and Celia was a part of it. Afro-Latinas all day long. This is a wonderful feature. I’m lovin it!

  27. indigolovely says:

    Thanks for the wonderful tribute to celia. And thank you for your writings; ive spent the last 2 hours on here and im suppose to be twisting my hair!!!! It was time well spent, now back to the napz :~}.

  28. I met Celia when I was in High School when she performed in St.Thomas USVI at the Reichold Center. My grandfather played with her and Tito Puente back in the day. My grandpa practically has a shrine to her in his living room. She was a fire cracker on the stage! My favorite song is La Vida es un carnival. I wake up to that tune every morning. Great post as usual Bella!

  29. I have some desire about Yo Vivre’s lyric. Anyone can give me one? Pls. I am tired from trying to search it from internet. Thank you.

  30. Jose, “Yo Vivre” is a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic, “I Will Survive.” Here’s the lyrics: http://www.lyricsdomain.com/7/gloria_gaynor/i_will_survive.html

  31. It’s an amazing paragraph in favor of all the web visitors; they will obtain advantage from it I am sure.

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