Celina González — Cuban singer who stayed faithful to Castro’s revolution

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This obituary by Robin Denselow appeared in Dawn.com. Follow the link below to the complete original report.

CELINA González, who died on Feb 4 in Havana aged 85, was revered as the finest exponent of Cuban country music. She was brought up listening to música campesina, the rural form of son, the Cuban fusion style in which rhythms brought to the island by African slaves were matched against Spanish verse forms and melodies. These were songs performed in farms and country towns during the sugar cane harvest and other festivities, and González made them popular across the island and beyond. She was, she insisted, always a country girl at heart, even after she had moved to the capital.

González had a powerful voice and a versatile style, and was equally successful singing in a small acoustic group or in a big band, backed by brass and strings. She was also a highly successful songwriter, and her best-known composition, ‘Santa Bárbara’, which she wrote in the late 1940s, was a reminder of her belief in SanterIa, the religion brought to Cuba by West African slaves. It was a rousing tribute both to the Catholic saint whose life-size statue always had pride of place in her home, and to the Yoruba god ChangU. It became massively popular across Cuba and was recorded by other major artists, including Celia Cruz.

González was born in Jovellanos, a centre of the sugar cane industry about 125km from Havana, but then moved to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the island. When she was 16 she met guitarist Reutilio Dominguez, who became her musical partner, and whom she would marry. As the duo Celina y Reutilio, they started appearing on a local radio station, where they became known both for their vocal harmony work and for their political stance, denouncing the government and praising the Cuban people. Then, with help from the singer and songwriter Nico Saquito, they moved to Havana, where they won a contract with the Saurito radio station and began their recording career. By the early 50s they were major stars, touring the Caribbean and appearing in New York alongside one of Cuba’s greatest band leaders and musicians, Beny More.

But González’s career changed dramatically with the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US. She had to decide whether to stay on the island or leave to further her career in the US. Some musicians, including Cruz, opted for the latter, but González decided to remain in Cuba to support Fidel Castro’s revolution. For more than 20 years she stayed in the country, and though her international career was at a standstill, her standing at home continued to rise. Música campesina had been looked down upon by some city dwellers, but after the revolution it became increasingly popular, and was boosted by González’s regular appearances on radio.

The partnership with her husband ended in 1964, and he decided to return to his home town of Guantánamo, where he died in 1971. She continued performing as a soloist for more than a decade and then in 1981 asked her son, Lázaro, who was often billed as Reutilio Jr, to take his father’s place as her vocal partner. With help from her son, she continued to record, sometimes re-working and updating old favourites in a new setting involving a horn section or the marimba xylophone. In the 80s she recorded a series of four albums at Havana’s celebrated Egrem studios, on which she was backed by two of Cuba’s finest country bands, Palmas y Canas, and Campo Alegre.

When González finally ventured out of Cuba for the first time in many years, she found she had not been forgotten. Playing at a musical festival in Cali, Colombia, in 1984, she won the award for best singer and was greeted by a crowd of 40,000 who knew all her songs. She also enjoyed success in Venezuela, and toured Europe on several occasions. She never achieved the degree of international success enjoyed by her compatriot Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club, but made several successful British appearances. In 1998 she performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall and in the same year released ‘Desde La Habana Te Traigo’, which included new songs about Yoruba deities.

She was nominated, unsuccessfully, for a Grammy in 2001 for her album Cincuenta AOos O Como una Reina, but in 2002 was awarded the Cuban National Music Prize, and in 2013 received the Unesco Picasso medal.

She is survived by her son.

For the original report go to http://www.dawn.com/news/1164494/celina-gonzalez-cuban-singer-who-stayed-faithful-to-castros-revolution

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