Celia Cruz: American Musical Legend

by Michael Broyles

celiacruz2000_300When famous Cuban American singer Celia Cruz took the stage at the Zaire ‘74 festival to sing her hit song “Quimbara,” all the well-known elements of her dynamic stage shows were present: her ecstatic dancing, loud outfits, big hair, and unmistakably powerful voice. The mostly Zairean audience members were exceptionally responsive to Cruz’s vivacious display of Latin American rhythms and cultures. This was unsurprising given that she had already become a global force, as had the salsa music movement she helped spearhead. B.B. King, James Brown, and Miriam Makeba also performed at Zaire ‘74. But, singing and dancing amidst the electrifying drums and blaring horns of the Fania All Stars, there was something special about Cruz’s performance. That night in Zaire, Cruz represented Cuba, Latin America, and the United States with equal poise and ardor.

Cruz’s credentials cannot be understated. She recorded more than 70 albums. Among her many accolades, she won three Grammy Awards (excluding her posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award), four Latin Grammy Awards, and a prestigious National Medal of Arts. Her musical catchphrase, “Azúcar!” (“Sugar!”), has become a well-known exclamation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. And as salsa music—a product of New York City musicians who mixed various Latin American musical forms—became part-and-parcel of popular music worldwide, Cruz was its booming, unstoppable monarch, gaining her the moniker “Queen of Salsa.” Like most great innovators, she became a cultural staple, a figure now embedded into histories and traditions throughout the Americas, her music continuing to pulsate within dance halls, nightclubs, parties, and celebrations.  In fact, her popularity and influence have been so pervasive that, in the years since her death in 2003, her life and work have inspired numerous museum exhibits, a well-known tribute band (Celia Cruz All Stars), a stage musical (Celia: Su Vida. Su Música. Su Leyenda), and a telenovela (Celia). In short, she was a big deal! And, yet, because the bulk of her success was in Spanish-language markets, she is too often excluded from people’s notions of American musical legends.

But Cruz’s story was quintessentially American. Born to a working-class family in Havana, Cuba in 1925, Cruz grew up with the musical traditions of her enslaved African ancestors surrounding her. As a child and young adult, she endured the horrors of legally- and socially-enforced racism, and she began her career in a Cuba suffering under the brutal fascist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Then, the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 led to the establishment of a violent communist dictatorship under Fidel Castro. Coinciding with Castro’s banning her from Cuba for life, Cruz became an American citizen in 1961, later only returning to Cuba as an entertainer on the United States naval base in Guantanamo. Her immigration to the United States, of course, came with a troubling contradiction: escaping persecution, she sought refuge in a country that still legally and socially treated her as a second-class citizen.  Yet, against the back drop of a tensely changing society, various civil rights movements, the Cold War, and the salsa music explosion, Cruz gained international stardom by the 1970s. Considering the totality of Cruz’s experiences, her life and work all-too-well captured the downfalls and beauties, the tragedies and triumphs, the moral failures and accomplishments inherent in the story of the American people.

Like salsa itself, Cruz’s music drew from a variety of sources, including traditional African, European, and Indigenous musical forms. In addition, Cruz was a practitioner of both Catholicism and Santería—a religion that formed in the Spanish Caribbean and mixes the traditional practices of the West African Yoruba people with Native and European Catholic elements. Inspired by her brave and enduring ancestors, the rhythms and melodies of traditional Santería music laid a foundation for her artistry. Much of Santería is based on communication with spiritual figures called orishas, who are also referred to as saints (santos) and gods (dioses). Each orisha is associated with a variety of drum rhythms, melodies, lyrics, and dances. Steeped in her the study of the Yoruba tradition, Cruz’s recordings and live performances were filled with references to orishas such as Yemayá, the patroness of waterways, and Changó, the patron of drumming, dancing, fire, war, and other attributes.

As Cruz’s religious practices reflected her large-scale embrace of Afro-Latin cultural elements, her open celebration of her African history and ethnicity was not devoid of political implications. Although Cruz avoided politics in her interviews and speeches, her embrace of Yoruba culture defied the rampant racism throughout Latin America and the United States. Further, as Latin American countries continued to suffer under the hands of fascist and communist tyranny, Cruz’s performances encapsulated complete freedom of expression in music, dance, word, and dress.

Religious and political importance, cultural influence, and accolades aside, Cruz was first-and-foremost a brilliant singer whose voice expressed power and sensitivity, control and exuberance. As a musician, it is impossible for me to listen to Cruz without marveling at her technical proficiency marked by her adeptness in voice control, her creative use of sound dynamics, her tonal consistency, and the sheer persistence of her vocal gravitas. As a music fan, I am drawn into the undefinable wave of emotions her voice conjures.

celiacruz1970s_300There is perhaps no musical form in Latin America that captures sadness as honestly or fully as the bolero—a form Cruz herself sang. Like in the bolero, sadness in Cruz’s music is not fatalistic; nor is happiness naïve. Rather, Cruz’s music promotes the moral courage and personal fortitude to face life’s struggles, and to celebrate the opportunity to do so. Her famous song, “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” (“Life Is a Carnival”), speaks to the hard-won joy that comes from the brave and arduous task of enduring adversity and emerging stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and more loving.

Despite Cruz’s importance as an American singer, the majority of celebrated Latin musicians held up as specifically American icons—Santana, Richie Valens, Cypress Hill, Linda Ronstadt, Selena, etc.— either primarily or simultaneously appealed to English-language markets. It is long past due, then, that Spanish-language music be considered a central part of the American musical landscape. Viewing Cruz as an American musical legend not only recognizes her own contributions to American music, but also the artistic and cultural contributions of other stalwarts in American Spanish-language music such as Willie Colón, La Lupe, and Isidro López. On a personal level, for us Americans of Latin descent, Cruz’s life and work signify that our ancestors’ histories and musical traditions matter too.

On that stage in Zaire in 1974, Cruz proved herself again as an indomitably global musical and cultural force. There are many reasons to celebrate that performance and her career as a whole: her embrace of Afro-Latin cultures, her encapsulation of expressive freedom, her display of religious pluralism, and her musical genius. Most significant to these factors was Cruz’s complete and unwavering dedication to her uniqueness, subsequently inspiring musicians, dancers, writers, fashion designers, and other artists for generations. It is for these reasons, and more, that Cruz continues to represent the best of what the United States, in all its faults and difficulties, has to offer. It is my hope that, among the many honorable titles bestowed upon her—the Queen of Salsa, vocal innovator, pop star, Latin American cultural icon—we add one more: American musical legend.

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