Celia Cruz, affectionately known as “La Reina de Salsa,” was a force of nature, an irreplaceable, once-in-a-generation female singer whose life and music echoed for over sixty years the trajectory of the Cuban Diaspora’s effect on Latin American and world culture. A ten-time Grammy nominee who recorded over seventy albums, she was awarded a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement award, a National Medal of the Arts, and honorary doctorates from Yale University and the University of Miami. She also acted in nine movies, including Los Reyes del Mambo, and the Mexican soap operas Valentina and El Alma no Tiene Color.
Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz, currently playing at the New World Theater, is a two-and-a-half-hour look back at her life from the reminiscences of her widower Pedro Knight, acted with wit and grace by Modesto Lacen and told in short vignettes to his male nurse, Pedro Capo. The play—which I saw in Spanish but is also performed in English three times a week—stars Xiomara Laugart, a Cuban exile herself who arrived in this country a decade ago, as the voice of Celia. She belts out a whopping twenty songs with as many outrageous costume changes, often dressed in the bata Cubana, a part–Spanish colonial, part–Afro-Cuban costume with billowing sleeves and long, ruffled trains. Selenis Leyva handles Celia’s narrative and speaking parts, and presents a softer, less brassy side of the Queen. The live musical accompaniment is by the seven-member group Celia’s Band, led by Isidro Infante, who served in groups with not only Cruz, but also Tito Puente and Machito. The well-known tres player Nelson González sits on the stage with Luisito and Robert Quintero of the Caribbean Jazz Project.
When people go to see a musical about a celebrity they want to see the drama, the high and low points; relive the story, words, and deeds of their heroine; and sing along to the music. For the Latin audience at the performance I attended, it was a chance to relive Cruz’s familiar story and its generations of hits; for the gringos the show is a fabulous introduction to the music they heard echoed on the radio and streets of major cities and in Latin night clubs.
Beginning with her birth—accompanied by the Afro-Cuban songs “Drume Negrita” and “Canto Lucumi”—the play traces Celia’s career from her first audition to her joining the band la Sonora Matancera, the Cuban equivalent of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Celia broke a major racial barrier by being the first black female Cuban to sing with a major act, and stayed with the group for fifteen years, eventually marrying its trumpet player, Pedro Knight. When Fidel Castro became prime minister of Cuba the couple decamped to Mexico, and the play has Celia sing “Mexico Lindo” to emphasize the transition. Loyal Cubans, Cruz and Knight later returned to their newly Communist nation, but when Castro asked Celia to sing for him, she refused and became persona non grata. She and Knight defected to Mexico in 1960, and Cuba’s loss was, as the saying goes, the world’s gain. (When Cruz’s mother died, Fidel refused to let her return to Cuba to bury her. She got her revenge by going to Guantánamo Bay and defiantly kissing the soil.)
Winding up in the United States in 1961, Celia joined up with salsa legend Tito Puente, mixing Cuban and Puerto Rican son and salsa (which owes a huge debt to Cuban son), as well as mambo, cha-cha-chá, and rumba. This collaboration caused her music to become louder and faster. She recorded eight albums with Puente but did not produce any hits. Frustrated, she teamed up with the legendary Dominican composer Johnny Pacheco and his Fania All-Stars. The All-Stars’ music reflected the barrio reality of many Latino émigrés, and fostered the careers of such greats as Rubén Blades, Ray Barretto, Johhny Pacheco, and Hector Lavoe. Their 1974 album Celia and Johnny went gold, and Celia went on to sing hits like “Qimbara” with the All-Stars at the 80,000-seat Stadu du Hai in Kinshasa, Zaire, where she humorously noted that the people in Africa looked just like her relatives. (This hair-raising performance now lives on forever on YouTube.)
In the early seventies Celia met the New York impresario and RMM Records head Ralph Mercado, who also promoted the careers of Marc Anthony and La India. Mercado told her she was a goddess, and under his tutelage her career soared with hits like the Tito Puento composition “Oye Como Va” (later a Top 10 hit for Santana) and “La Vida Es un Carnaval.”
In 2002 Cruz was diagnosed with cancer, but by 2003 she was back in the studio recording Regalo de Alma, produced by Sergio George. The album included “Yo Viviré” (a Spanish-language version of the Gloria Gaynor hit “I Will Survive”) and a duet with rap star El General on “Ella Tiene Fuego”—both songs included in the musical. Celia died shortly afterward, on July 16, 2003.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.