Imagine that you’re at a Frank Sinatra concert in ’83, and all everyone wanted to hear was LA Is My Lady in ’83 or stuff from Cycles from ’68 maybe Little Green Apples or some other lost track thing. If you can picture a world where all they wanted from Sinatra was the new jams, then you may have an idea as to the scenario at the Festival De La Independecia De Cuba in the fall of ’95 at the Orange Bowl. All of exiled Cuba’s sons and daughters trotted out to be a part of the scene. Alvarez Guedes, Willy Chirino, Olga Guillot. Hansel Martinez played a cool set wearing a pirate shirt, and did a great version of ‘Esquina Habanera’ complete with a new verse with lyrics about Titi Soto, the song’s writer who had just passed. Willy was to come on last ending with the always touching ‘Ya Vienen LLegando.’ Sanguiched in between their sets was the greatest living figure of Cuban music. When Celia Cruz took the stage it was pandemonium.
But perhaps because it was before the tragic downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in ’96, and the Cuban patriotic fervor hadn’t picked up it’s mid-nineties re-aculturation steam or maybe the show wasn’t promoted enough, but the Bowl wasn’t as full as it should have been.
Celia has played some amazing shows, from her legendary days at the Palladium to that unforgettable night at the legendary gay club Warsaw in Miami Beach, where cubanitos danced with their mothers and their lovers. She was a familiar, yet thriving live presence in Miami, from the Kiwanis’ Christmas Party of ‘93, to the free concert for all of South Beach in ‘94, to ‘95’s great outdoor show at the Bayfront Amphitheater, with Albita and Willy again.
But this festival at the Orange Bowl was her most important Miami show in years. For once, she wasn’t playing to the usual cross-section of the Miami middle class that she plays for – Latinos in Miami still have a middle class – whom she always, nonetheless, wows. This time, she was playing for her contemporaries. As the fifty and sixty year old women danced around the stage, yelling for ‘La Guagua’ and ‘Que Le Den Candela,’ her current radio hits, her art came into sharper focus. These weren’t the well-to-do ladies of the Kiwanis festival, or the South Beach hipsters attending some of her other shows. This was an audience of slightly lower income. More an Impala than a Beamer, more AM than FM, and one tough crowd. Celia had them on their feet. They spun as if they were teenagers back in Cuba, grooving with their tough guy husbands antes de que todo se hechara a perder (Before everything turned bad).
The best part was the way the crowd, especially the ladies, called out for the new songs. They knew them, they liked them, they bought ‘em and they listened for them. Celia continues to be a vital, growing artist; the foremost female salsa singer of today. No nostalgia act here. It wasn’t just due to her producers either. Consider Frank Sinatra, her contemporary who was America’s great legend, who recorded with Quincy Jones, who did it all, yet audiences didn’t call out for the later stuff. It got as far as ‘My Way.’ But Celia didn’t have to limit her repetoir to classics like ‘Quimbara’ or ‘Caramelos,’ in order to excite her audience, which is just as familiar with her new singles.
What can you say about her, other than that she is the Queen? Untouchable. Her loyalty to her fans knows no bounds, and her fans repay her in kind. She remains close to her family. On July 14, 1962 she married Pedro Knight, first Trumpet with Sonora Matancera, “mi cabezita de algodón,” she calls him. Celia’s got the key to NYC. Kotch gave it to her in ‘81. She’s got an incredible memory. She’s one of 14 children. She’s an American citizen. She was the object of a gala tribute at Madison Square Garden in ‘82. She got an honorary degree from Yale. After she left La Sonora Matancera, Celia recorded two albums of Afro-Cuban religious music for the Seeco label, now super-collectables. She helped create the Salsa movement in the 70s with Fania records & and the incomparable bandleader Johnny Pacheco, for whom she was a muse. She and David Byrne cut ‘Loco De Amor’ in ‘88 for the Something Wild soundtrack and they named Calle Ocho, Celia Cruz Way. What more can you say? She’s Celia Cruz, The Queen of Salsa. We spoke to her at her home in Jersey.
ñ: Celia, it’s an honor to be speaking with you.
CC: Gracias, gracias Bill… (it’s my pleasure).
ñ: Let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born?
CC: I was born in the Santo Suarez neighborhood. Serrano Street number 47 – between Enamorados y la Calle Santo Suarez.
ñ: At what age did you start singing?
CC: I never talk about age (laughs) but I was born singing. My mother, Catalina, told me that at 9 or 10 months of age I’d wake up in the middle of the night, 2 or 3 in the morning, singing ‘esta muchachita va a trabajar de noche.’ Pues la viejita no se equivocó. (This little girl is is going to work nights! Well, my little mom wasn’t wrong).
There was a musical group in my neighborhood called ‘El Botón de Oro’ (The Golden Button). They played clave, maracas, bongos, marimba… no bass. Fransisco Gavilan played marinba and was the band leader and I was the only singer. We were at every neighborhood party. I also sang in school, during Fridays’ Actos Civicos. I was the oldest sibling at home so I used to put the little ones to sleep. I would sing my brothers and sisters to sleep and I noticed that, when I did, there were always neighbors at my door. I thought ‘What are those people doing there?… I’m trying to get these kids to sleep.’
Later, I found out that a cousin of mine was bringing the people in. One day my cousin said, ‘Get dressed up on Saturday because I’m taking you to a radio station to sing’. He took me to Radio Garcia-Vera. That was the first time I used a microphone. I sang a tango… ‘El tango nostalgia’ and I won. They gave me a cake. They asked me to return in about four Saturdays to perform again. That time I won una cadena de plata (a gold chain) and from then on I went to all the radio stations in Cuba… CMCH, CMQ’s ‘La Corte Suprema del Arte’… RHC… and at almost all I won. The only time that I did not win first place was when I competed with Vilma Valle. We tied. She got $25 and I got $25. Then I was given the opportunity to sing every Sunday on ‘Estrellas Nacientes’ Rising Stars. I was paid five dollars… estaba bueno. (Which was good).
Then I met Roderico Neira and went to perform in theater. I was part of ‘Fausto con las Mulatas de Fuego’. Las Mulatas sang and danced and I would sing while they danced. In about 1948, Tato Guerra, an impresario from Havana, contracted us to tour Mexico. That went well, the audiences liked me and the show. I even got to do solos although no one knew me and I hadn’t even recorded anything yet. We returned to Cuba and later toured Venezuela.
In the early 50s I was with Radio Cadena Suárez… I’d perform a song or sing in the chorus de la música Africana. Entonces un señor llamado Sotolongo, que tengo entendido que todavía vive y que sigo bendiciendo, me buscó para que yo trabajara con La Sonora Matancera. Empezé el 3 de agosto del 1950. Grabé mi primer disco con La Sonora en enero del ‘58 — ‘Cao Cao Maní Picao.
Then a man named Sotolongo, who I understand is still alive, and who i continue to thank and send blessings to, sought me out to work with La Sonora Matancera. I started out August 3rd 1950. I recorded my first record in January 1958. Cao Cao Mani Picao.
ñ: Wow, that’s a marvelous record.
CC: Really! and ‘Jaralla’ was on the B side. Before recording Rogelio spoke with Mr. Sigler, who owned the record company Fico Records, but he didn’t want me to record because women did not sell at the time. Rogelio told him that if my record didn’t sell, La Sonora would assume the costs, and I recorded. Como él vió que el número gustó en la Habana… When he saw I was a hit in Havana, Mr. Sigler le dió a Rogelio el go-ahead e hicimos un long playing de ocho numeros y a, partir de allí, I was contracted and stayed with Sonora for 15 years. Llegó un punto donde Mr. Sigler ya no me hacía promoción y yo dije… (bueno, esto ya fue en los estados unidos, el 75), ‘Sigler, yo grabo, grabo, grabo, y usted no me hace promoción. Sigo cantando ‘Llerberitos’, ‘Burundaga…’ y me dió una respuesta que no me gustó. Ahora no me acuerdo lo que fue pero no me gustó y me dió el release, y ya (When he saw I was a hit in Havana, he gave Rogelio the go-ahead and we made a long playing record with eight numbers on it. From there I was contracted and stayed with Sonora for 15 years. There came a point Mr. Sigler didn’t promote the records and I said, remember this is in the United States in ’75, I said, “Sigler I keep recording and recording and you don’t promote the records. I keep singing ‘LLerberito’ and ‘Burundanga’… and he gave me an answer that I didn’t like. I can’t remember what it was but i didn’t like it, so I asked to be released from my contract and that was that).
Later I received a letter from him saying that I owed him five records, which was true… but since I was traveling so much, I didn’t have time to do it. Finally, I recorded three records for him. Then I signed with Tico and began recording with Tito Puente… from 1966 to 1973… and we recorded very good albums.
ñ: Yeah, I have alot of those records including the one with ‘Aquario’.
CC: ‘Aquario’ was the second. ‘Cuba y Puerto Rico’ was the first. But I don’t think that enough promotion was done to support them. Mr. Levy just didn’t do it and again I asked to be released. Fortunately I’ve never been thrown out. I’ve always left.
From there I went to Fania with Masuchi but with one condition… that I get heavy promotion behind me… if not I wouldn’t sign. Y pues sí… they really pushed my records, from the first one with Pacheco, to date. Now I’m recording with Ralph Mercado on RMM but if Masuchi asked me to return, I’d be there. He was the one that gave me ‘mi segundo aire’, como digo yo, (my second wind, I always say) and I’ve been here since.
ñ: Those Fania records are classics. Which are your favorites of that era?
CC: The first, that one has ‘Quimbara,’ ‘Toromata’… it had five hits, and other records I made with Justo Betancourt and Pacheco. I’ve had lots of luck with them.
ñ: Is that ‘Recordando el ayer with Celia, Justo, Pacheco y Papo’?
CC: Yes, exactly! We recorded ‘Besitos de coco’.
ñ: I’m a fanatic of those records. I have Tremendo caché, Celia, Johnny y Pete ‘El Conde’ and one where you’re wearing an African dress on the cover.
CC: Esa foto la tomamos en una casa de Africanos en el Village (We took that photo at the home of these Africans who live in Greenwhich Village.
ñ: That’s a tremendous record with great songs like ‘Toromata’, ‘La dicha mía.’
CC: No, ‘La dicha mía’ was recorded on the one with Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodriguez.
ñ: That’s right.
CC: Remember, in the end I say, “Bueno, por fín con ‘El Conde’ no he pagado nada” (Remember at the end i say , “well, with Pete I’ve never had a hit!)
ñ: When did you arrive in the US?
CC: July 15, 1960. But the first time I visited was in 1957 to pick up an award for my first gold record — ‘Burundanga.’ While I was here I performed in San Nicholas Arena pero por cierto se formó bronca porque dejaron entrar más gente de lo que cabia… oyí que se formó por un promotor celoso, porque su lugar estaba vacío y empezó una bronca (But of course fights broke out cause the venue was oversold. I heard it was a jealous promoter who started it because his place was really empty so he started a fight.)
ñ: What can you tell us about the night life in Cuba and New York back when Arsenio was around?
CC: In Cuba I worked mostly in cabarets like Tropicana, San Souci, Bamboo, Topeka… when I got to New York in 1960 the Arsenio times had passed. I performed at the Paladium with Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and a group that Luli Casado put together but I didn’t live the Arsenio era. Anyway, I don’t go to clubs really, not even big parties… while performing I give the public exactly what they’re expecting pero no soy fiestera (but I’m not a big party goer), so I can’t really tell you about the nightlife.
ñ: Let’s talk about ‘Irrepetible’, your new album, which Willy Chirino produced.
CC: That record has done well. People especially like ‘Que le den candela,’ ‘Guagua’ y ‘Drume Negrita’ — it’s because of the way we recorded them. Although I’ve never asked Rafy how many have sold, I don’t like asking that… but every time I perform it the audience loves it.
ñ: Yeah, I saw you at La Fiesta de la Independencia de Cuba and the crowd was loving the new songs as much as the old.
CC: Yeah. Pero ‘Bemba Colorada’ no se queda atrás (But ‘Bemba Colorada’ stills wows ’em).
ñ: What about the next record?
CC: It’s going to be salsa but I still haven’t chosen songs for it. Estoy un poco exigente, nada que me traen me gusta. I Don’t like anything they bring me, so Rafy Mercado has put together una recopilación (a compliation of songs) that I’ve recorded with various artists like Angela Carrasco, Oscar de León, Dyango. We’re doing that, then we’ll put together the Salsa record. Later, we’ll do a Bolero one.
ñ: Do you like singing Boleros?
CC: I prefer Salsa. I will never change mi género, nunca, mi amor… no hay tantas– y si me voy yo? (I will never change my genre darling, there aren’t many doing it, so if I stop, who’s left?)
ñ: That’s right. You’re the Queen, forever. What about The Beatles tribute you’re on? Do you like their music?
CC: I would have liked to record ‘Yesterday’ but they gave it to Jose Feliciano because they wanted it recorded in English. I don’t sing in English. Me sorprendieron en Mambo Kings que hice ‘La dicha mía’. (They surprised me in Mambo Kings with La Dicha Mia.)
Editors Note: A wonderful English language version of her classic La Dicha Mia was recorded for the Mambo Kings soundtrack, with lyrics quite artfully translated by the film’s director, ex-art dealer Arne Glimcher.
ñ: But that was a great recording.
CC: You tell me, because I don’t speak English.
ñ: Let’s talk about your movie roles.
CC: What roles! I always play una espiritista (a spiritual medium). In Mambo Kings, I was the mother of a Santero… In The Pérez Family, which is called ‘Cuando salí de Cuba’ in Spain (“When I Left Cuba”, a famous Celia song about leaving her country never to return is the film’s title in Spain – ed), and on Valentina with Veronica Castro, it was the same. I guess I play that role well. Quisiera ser un role diferente. Tiene que haber un role que lo haga una persona de color y… no se. Pero claro, si me lo dan lo hago, pero no quisiera hacer lo mismo (I’d like to play a different kind of role. There has to be something else a a black person can do … i don’t know. But of course, if I’m offered the role I’ll take it, but I hate doing the same thing twice).
ñ: What are your plans for the future?
CC: …Ay, mi negro, seguir cantando… seguir viajando…(Keep singing, keep traveling) recording is something I’d like to get away from a little. The competition is tough and if a record doesn’t receive a lot of promotion behind it, then why record it?
ñ: Your recent stuff has been wonderful, ‘Azucar Negra’ is great.
CC: Yes, I did that one with Emilio y tiene el Miami sound (Yes, I did that one with Emilio Estefan and it has the Miami Sound).
ñ: What’s your favorite record that you’ve done?
CC: I’m not talking about the songs because all the songs are my favorites. Luckily I’ve worked with companies that have allowed me to choose my repetoir. For example, with Sonora Matancera my favorite is ‘Reflecciones’, con Pacheco, donde estoy con la bata Africana, el de Chirino me a gustado muchisimo… (With Pacheco the one in the African Robes I like a great deal), con Tito Puente el que grabé ‘Girigiribón’…(With Tito Puente the one where i recorded Girigiribón). I’m talking about my favorite LPs, not the individual songs… The songs are all my favorites for the simple reason that I am the one that chooses them, A mí no me gusta que me impongan nada, como yo soy la que lo tengo que cantar… yo soy la que le tengo que dar corazón. (I don’t like anything to be hoisted on me, because I’m the one that has to sing it, I’m the one that has to give them my heart.)