Sass and Salsa
Celia Cruz is a legend in the hot and happy world of Cuban music. Kenny Mathieson investigates the career of the Queen ofSalsa.
(‘elia ('ruz is to salsa as Ella Fitzgerald is to jazz. which is to say. both the greatest living exponent of the art. and the standard by which others in the style are judged. Not that Celia has many competitors. certainly not among women singers. in the traditionally male-dominated enclave of (‘uban music.
(‘elia is the undisputed Queen of Salsa. but reaching that eminence was not always a smooth ride. Born in El Barrio de Santos Suarez in Havana (she chooses not to be too specific about the year. but she is in her (i()s now). she was training to be a teacher when she won a radio talent show.
ller big break in terms of public recognition. though. came in 1950. when she was invited to join the most popular band in Cuba. La Sonora Matancera. She was not a universally popular choice in the first instance. and she recalls that the radio station received letters demanding— in no uncertain terms — that this upstart youngster be remoy ed from their beloved band.
'.-\ny other youngster would have quit alter reading those terrible letters.‘ she recalls. but (‘ruz is nothing if not determined. and not only stuck w ith the band but also studied music at the (‘onservatory in Havana. although she insists that her gilt for itttprovisalion is largely a natural one.
‘I improvise. I didn’t train. It's natural. it‘s something that you are born with. It comes from the inside. You can’t practise ahead of time. because it won't come out right. I never know what lam going to say in the improvised part of the song. and it never comes out the same way.‘
If improvisation. which takes the form of rbymed words and phrases (roughly equivalent to scatting in jazz) in what is known as the nzunlimo section of the song. is not quite as crucial in salsa as in jazz. it is nonetheless an essential element in (‘ruz’s art. and gives substance to the parallels which have been drawn between her and the likes of Fitzgerald and the late Sarah Vaughan.
‘Ella has such a sweet voice. it is not at all like my own thunderous voice!.' she says. but agrees that they ‘improvise the way I do.’ (‘elia’s international reputation now matches her standing in Latin American circles. the steadv reward of vears of
touring. firstly with La Sonora Mantacera (until 1965). and later with her fellow Latin superstars like Johnny Pacheco. Willie (‘olon. and 'l'ito l’uente.
(‘elia is an extravagant and exciting entertainer. famous for her exotic stage dresses. highly energetic dancing. and charismatic presence. Iler near—operatic range and precision of interpretation is well sttited to the bright. compulsiver danceable rhythms ol’salsa.
'\\'hen people ask me what is salsa. I say salsa is ('uban music. just with another name. Salsa is mum/m. (‘/l(l(‘/I(l(‘/l(l. rum/m. guugunm. just (‘uban music with a new name. All these rhythms are brought together under this one name. salsa. But the most important thing is that salsa is happy music!’
Although she made her initial reputation in the nightclubs of l lavana. (‘ruz skipped to New York in 1960. at the beginning of the (‘astro era. and has not been forgiven for the defection — she was even refused permission to return for the funerals of her parents. Exposure to the version of the music which grew out of the .Vt'ievurkiam community did not fundamentally change her own style.
‘No. I don’t change. I haven‘t changed the way I
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Celia Cruz: queen olsalsa
sing salsa at all. The only change I see in salsa is that the arrangements are a little bigger than before. and they have a little touch of jazz in the arrangements. because a lot of the people writing and playing these arrangements live in New York or Miami or l’uerto Rico. and not in (‘uba.'
Virtuoso percussionist and band-leader 'l'ito l’uente is a native of New York‘s Spanish Harlem. and has thoroughly absorbed the jazz influence which (‘elia identifies. The pair first worked together in 1973. and the singer has now clocked up over (illt) appearances with the 'l'ito l’uente ()rchestra. so it is fair to say that they have proved to be compatible musical partners.
‘I love playing with Tito. and I know he loves playing with me. When we are together. me and Tim and the orchestra and the audience. there is something very special w hich happens. 'l’here is a special energy there. Salsa is a happy music. and that is why'l‘ito and my self hay e been able to 11m e| all over the world to places w here the language is very different from Spanish. and still leach so many people .'
(iv/(u ( 'ru: mull/1e ‘I'Ilo I’uen/c ()n /l('\/I'((/’/tl\' u/ the Glasgow('om't'rlHallo/1.811!I}.
The List [2— 35 July IWI 33