Celia Cruz: The Voice from Havana

Recently, Noah Adams (NPR’s “Morning Edition” 25 October 2010) explored on Celia Cruz’s singing prowess and, in particular, her song “Quimbara.” Adams begins his report with opera singer and voice teacher Charles Williams’ reaction to a recording of Cruz’s “Quimbara”: “Oh, Celia Cruz, from Cuba, yes. My God, what a goddess.”  In an earlier report (Felix Contreras’ “Celia Cruz: Her Life and Music,” 21 May 2005) Smithsonian Institution’s Marvette Pérez, curator of Latino history and culture, described Cruz’s power thus: “It is as if the earth opened her mouth to talk and to sing.” Listening to both broadcasts, especially Pérez’s detailed descriptions of the diva’s wardrobe choices, reminded me that Celia Cruz was my “Lady Gaga” . . . but better. Here are excerpts from the recent program with links to both reports below:

He [Charles Williams] admired the projection she achieved, the carrying power, keeping “the tone in the bone” right from the cheekbones. Williams could also hear the grounding of her voice in her body. “So there’s warmth,” he said. “You’ve got the right combination of coffee and milk, a dark/light sound.”

Cruz was Havana-born and grew up in the neighborhoods where music was always in the air. She traveled for 15 years as a young singer with the Sonora Matancera orchestra. Cruz was out of the country at the time of the Cuban Revolution and chose not to return. She settled in Fort Lee, N.J., home base for a decades-long career and a 41-year marriage to Pedro Knight, who had been her trumpet player.

In the early ’70s, she recorded “Quimbara,” a vibrant, pulsating tongue twister that took her instantly to the top of the salsa world. It was the first time she’d worked in multitrack. Recording engineer Jon Fausty put congas on one track, timbales, trumpets and piano on others. Cruz sang with the headphone mix. “She didn’t have to get it right the first time,” Fausty says. “She could redo a part if she wasn’t satisfied, without having the band to have to play it over again.”

Carmen Rivera and her husband, Candido Tirado, researched her career for their off-Broadway musical Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz. They were especially moved by a Telemundo tribute, filmed just before she passed away. “When she came out for a bow, she looked lovely,” Rivera says. “She was all in silver with a silver wig, and she can rock a silver wig, looking elegant and beautiful. Her husband is watching her, and he’s crying and there’s so much love in his eyes and so much pain, because she was already very ill. And we said, that’s the story—those eyes, that’s the story.”

When Cruz died in 2003, her casket was flown to Miami so her fans could say farewell, and 200,000 people turned out. In her music, Cruz had often expressed the sentiments of the Cuban-American community. In one of her early songs from exile, she sang: “I send to Cuba my voice, from this distant beach.”

For articles and NPR broadcasts, see http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130728056&sc=fb&cc=fp and http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4660698

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