A report by Stefanie Fernández for NPR.
The world’s love affair with Celia Cruz is a story that has a middle but no beginning. Today, the world remembers Cruz as the Queen of Salsa, with her towering wigs, cackling refrain of ¡Azúcar! and permanent smile. Her best-loved hits concern happiness in the face of life’s hardships: “Ay / no hay que llorar / que la vida es un carnaval / es más bello vivir cantando” (You don’t have to cry / life is a carnaval / it’s more beautiful to live singing). For so many, the hope and joy that Cruz embodied made her difficult ascension to fame a footnote to her success.
In the shadow of her most famous hits from the 1970s and subsequent decades, 1966’s Son Con Guaguancó may be no one’s go-to Cruz album, but it is perhaps her most significant. The album is an artifact of Cruz’s 1966 and her life in transition — from Cuba to exile in the United States, and from obscurity behind institutional barriers to international fame despite systemic racism and sexism. On the cusp of international stardom, the Cruz who recorded this album is at once a girl in Cuba’s countryside, set firmly in the day-to-day landscape and concerns of el campo, as well as a burgeoning star, transplanting these minutiae among the tumultuous United States of 1966.
Born in Santos Suárez, a working-class neighborhood outside of Havana, Cruz defied her father’s desire that she abandon singing for a more respectable career. As a girl, she clandestinely sang in cabarets and participated in radio talent contests. In 1950, at 25 years old, Cruz — and her voice, an alto as deep and rich as soil — caught the attention of La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra. Cruz became the orchestra’s first black front woman as well as a household name — and voice — across the island and Latin America over the next ten years.
Son Con Guaguancó was her first major release as a proper solo artist in the United States without the famed Sonora Matancera behind her in relief. She had released Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son with Tito Puente earlier that year, but Son Con Guaguancó was the first album to promote Celia as a solo artist on Tico Records, Puente’s label. (Tico Records was later purchased by Fania Records, the New York label at the fore of the salsa explosion of the late 1960s and 1970s.)
The album’s name is a testament to Cruz’s attention to the fusion of genre, setting and identity. Cruz combines elements of classic Afro-Cuban son montuno rhythms with the faster, syncopated elements of the guaguancó subgenre that became her signature, incorporating undertones of rumba, mambo, cha-cha, guaracha and bolero. “I bring you this guaguancó that tastes of son,” she sings on the titular track. With Fania, “salsa” became an umbrella term for this fusion of West-African-derived, clave-centric genres with American influences like jazz and Nuyorican boogaloo.
Ethnomusicologist and Yale University professor Michael Veal cites Cruz as one of the central figures of the West African diaspora in the Caribbean who “injected a folkloric sensibility of lucumí and santería into popular dance music.” Cruz’s ability to incorporate these folkloric elements into her music has historical roots: In the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves vastly outnumbered white settlers on islands like Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola, and consequently were better equipped to preserve their religious beliefs and musical practices than slaves in the United States. The musical worship of the Yoruba orishas, or gods, is part of the spiritual fabric of Cuba that produced genres like rumba, mambo and son montuno.
Cruz, who grew up hearing the santero songs of her neighbors, made this influence explicit in her songs, and this combination of genres, rhythms and lyrical traditions rooted in Yoruba spirituality contributed to Cruz’s distinct Afro-Cuban sound. In turn, this influenced young African American musicians who were exploring their diasporic musical lineage; James Brown and his arranger Peewee Ellis, for example, were listening to mambo, boogaloo and son montuno in the late 1960s.
On “Bemba Colorá,” Son Con Guaguancó‘s introduction and most famous track, an energetic guaguancó fueled by Tito Puente’s manic timbales gives way to a slowed-down son interlude and impassioned West African call and response of the titular phrase. Coupled with Cruz’s impassioned refrain — literally, “for me, you aren’t anything” — the song is an explosive self-affirmation of Cruz’s reclamation of power as a black woman in the subject relationship and onstage.
By the album’s third track, “Es La Humanidad,” Cruz has covered guaguancó, rumba, son and full-on bolero. In contrast to the ubiquitous joy of Cruz’s legacy, her bolero is an existential condemnation of the state of the world: “To the devil with humanity / because the world is one half false / and the other half a lie.” The inner longing and melancholy of Cruz’s music was largely indebted to the trauma of her exile: Six years before Son Con Guaguancó’s release, Cruz went on tour with La Sonora Matancera in Mexico and unwittingly left Cuba for good. In 1962, Cruz requested permission to return to Cuba after her mother’s death, but Cuban officials denied her entrance for being a popular artist vocally opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Her manager, Omer Pardillo Cid, told Billboard that this was when Cruz decided, “If I can’t return to bury my mother, I’ll never return.” After this, Cruz imbued her music with a longing for the island from which she was exiled, giving songs like Luis Aguilé’s “Cuando Salí de Cuba” new emotional weight. For Cruz in 1966, forbidden from seeing her family in Cuba, not all the promise of fame can guarantee happiness.
This existentialism quietly pervades Son Con Guaguancó even on its more whimsical songs. The album’s firm placement in the landscape of working-class Cuba is its most notable feature, albeit not one new to Cruz; she fused Yoruba themes and rhythms with popular westernized Cuban music in her early songs with La Sonora Matancera like “Yerbero” and “Caramelo.” The specificity of santeros, mamey trees and dancing rumba in multi-apartment solares despite the wishes of a controlling lover give shape to her universally accessible rhythms and lovelorn lyrics. The album’s conceit, however, is that Son Con Guaguancó is Cruz’s first album to transplant this setting so opaquely for an American audience; the casual listener might never imagine that Cruz was the victim of institutional racism and a traumatic permanent flight from her native country.
Upon closer inspection, one hears hints of the beginning of Cruz’s American life. On “El Cohete,” a playful Space-Race era song about moving to the moon on a rocket ship, Cruz jokes that she plans to leave on the Gemini XI mission in September 1966. On “Se Me Perdió La Cartera,” Cruz further stresses this thematic duality through the everyday concern of losing her purse. She worries that others might think she’s lying about it to cover up a lack of money — a problem that could easily plague a working-class woman in Havana or Miami. In the song’s improvised soneo, however, Cruz speaks: “Ay, mira, perdí los espejuelos, la licensia, el social security!” The song then targets a distinctly immigrant American experience, as one’s license and social security registration are proof of the difficult citizenship process and are necessary items for a recent émigré looking to rebuild her life. Ay diós mío, she asks, why do these things happen to me?
“No Hay Manteca” tells a similarly ordinary story about lacking lard to fry food with, ambiguous in its application to Cuban and American life. “Things have gotten bad now,” she sings, complaining that she can only boil food in water with onions, pepper and salt. The lack of lard at the grocery store could be indebted to the uncommon use of lard in American culture, if Cruz is singing as a Cuban American. It could also refer to limited resources in Cuban grocery stores after the Revolution and the American embargo destabilized the island’s economy. (To this day, it is common for someone hosting a dinner in Havana to go to three or four grocery stores in search of essential ingredients.) Either way, “things are bad now” in different ways for a working-class Cuban woman in 1966 on the island or in the United States.
Despite all the pain of her early life, Cruz is overwhelmingly joyful in her music. In conversation with Cubans of older generations, one notices a tendency to gloss over the darker, more senseless trauma of exile and migration with optimism, be it through patriotism or hope for their children and grandchildren. Son Con Guaguancó is no exception. Cruz finds her comfort, and brings it to so many others, in her remembrance of the minutiae of daily life in Cuba lost to the grander narrative of exile.
For the Cuban-American community, Cruz became a symbol of pride and freedom, and she brought Afro-Cuban music to the world stage as a black woman in the face of widespread racism and sexism. Thirty years after she left Cuba — and 24 years after the release of her American solo debut — Cruz returned in 1990 to perform at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay and kissed the soil beneath her. Today, she is buried in New York with a fistful of Cuban earth.
Throughout her lifetime, Cruz released dozens of more influential albums that, together with her early hits with La Sonora Matancera, have overshadowed Son Con Guaguancó. Yet the album remains a cultural and historical artifact as Cruz’s first quiet defiance in Cuban America. On the album’s final track, “Amarra La Yegua,” Cruz recalls the beauty of a criollo morning in the country, as a mockingbird calls all to the day’s work. “The cow, always sure, gets fat in a hurry,” she sings as the song ends, “contemplating the blackness of the man who comes to work / while the man, with tenderness, takes care of her and milks her.”
Like the legacy she left behind, Celia Cruz found hope in memory. Her blackness, her womanhood and the tenderness with which she did her work throughout her sixty-year career are a testament to her ability in a world fractured by exile and discord to break barriers and replace them with joy.