**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 Ãšrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso, and was raised in an extended family of fourteen children in the Santos SuÃ¡rez 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.