Everyone has a story to tell about Celia Cruz, the Cuban singer whose contagious voice and larger-than-life persona helped turn Afro-Cuban music into an international phenomenon.
Here’s one: One night a few years ago, Cruz was backstage at a Miami concert auditorium. She looked frail and had a hard time walking, even with the help of a cane. Rumor had it she was receiving medical treatment for cancer and was ordered by her doctors to stop performing for some time.
Yet when she took the stage that night, it was like witnessing a miracle. She danced with the energy of a teenager and kept the beat with such precision you could set a clock to it. It was no accident the band followed her and not the other way around.
And when she sang, her voice was something close to salvation. It was strong, engaging, commanding. Once she started singing, and once the audience heard her famous “¡Azúcar!” exclamation, it was hard to stay still.
And in her voice was a living history lesson, too. You could hear the ancestral African drumming of her native Santo Sears (one of Havana’s historic black barrios), the big band majesty of La Sonora Mantancera (the Cuban band that gave her a name in Latin America) and the jazzy salsa experiments of Willie Colon (the Nuyorican musician who introduced her to a new generation).
But Celia Cruz not only sang and played music, she embodied it. Even her shocking pink and electric blue wigs had rhythm; her vivid, polka dot dresses (one of which hangs today in the Smithsonian) had swing; and that wide, full smile had harmony, melody. All of these helped make her one of Latin music’s great international ambassadors, and Cruz’s great voice reached out to audiences allover the world, seducing crowds in places like Japan, Sweden and South Africa.
Yet for all her acclaim and success, Cruz was also a model of hard work, humility, conviction and solidarity. She always sang in Spanish, never diluted her sound or betrayed her Cuban roots. “I left Cuba in the 1960s, but my heart is still there,” she said in numerous interviews. “I sing for those who don’t have a voice and for those who believe music is out best ambassador.”
Born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in 1927, Celia started singing semi-profession
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