She showed the whole world that life is a carnival, and that the best way to live is with joy and music.
Whether you’re a salsa lover or you’ve only ever heard a couple of songs from this genre, you’ve probably heard the unique voice of Latin America’s Black Queen. Well, actually, she was than more than a queen; many people called her the goddess of tropical music. She was a unique character who became not only an influential artist in Latin music, but also an important black icon in a culture that doesn’t celebrate blackness. So, let’s sprinkle some “azúcar” on our souls and dive into the story of the woman who changed Latin music forever.
Who was Celia?
Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso was born in Havana in 1925. From a very early age, she fell in love with music and proved to be a natural at singing. She learned santeria music thanks to her neighbor, who was a practitioner and singer, and despite her father’s disapproval of the genre (him being a fervent Catholic), she soon started dabbling in this practice and learned Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa and adopted by santeros. When she was a teenager her aunt would take her and her cousin to cabarets in Havana to perform. Her father, who had high hopes for her daughter, agreed as long as she stayed in school. So it happened, and after high school, she entered the Normal School for Teachers, where she studied to become a literature teacher. However, she knew that music was her passion, and when one of her professors told her that she could earn more in a day by singing than what most Cuban teachers did in one month, she decided to follow her dream. Celia knew that if she wanted to become an important singer she had to be fully trained, so in 1947 she enrolled in the Havana National Conservatory of Music, where she studied theory, singing, and piano.
From this moment on, she started getting some minor gigs and would even go to a radio show called “Hora del Té,” where she won several singing contests. She worked on some recordings as the second voice in Venezuela, but her real opportunity came in 1950, when one of the most popular salsa groups in Havana, La Sonora Matancera, needed a lead singer after their original one decided to quit. Some of the members had heard Celia on the radio and knew her from her cabaret performances, so in spite of her young age, they decided to give her a chance.
For fifteen years she worked with the Matancera, and she became even a more popular and bigger icon than the group itself. They toured all over Latin America, released several albums and became a staple of Havana’s nightlife (Celia even appeared in some movies of the famous Golden Age of Mexican Cinema). When Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, Celia was touring in Mexico, and when she attempted to return to Cuba, she was denied entry. In 1961, she became a US citizen, and was determined to conquer the Cuban community who had settled in the US. Joining the legendary Tito Puente, both signed with a record company to release a couple of albums that didn’t work that well, but after changing companies, they became influential music figures heard by Latino communities all over the world, and traveling to Europe and Asia. Before long, Celia had conquered the world.
She was a true fashion queen
Besides her great voice and personality, something that made Celia stand out from other salsa and tropical musicians was her unique fashion style, which honored her Afro-Caribbean roots. Merging elements of Cuban culture and her African ancestry, she would appear on stage wearing vibrant and colorful outfits with intricate and beautiful patterns that captivated her audience.
At the same time, she fully understood the importance of her image onstage and the impact it could have as an overall experience. For that reason, even her outfits were thoroughly thought to be a part of her performance. Especially at the beginning of her career, she would wear dresses that moved and swayed to the rhythm of her songs.
One of the things everyone remembers about this salsa queen is also her extravagant and noteworthy hairstyles, often adorned with colorful bands or feathers that would match or complement the color of her show-stopping outfits. Though her looks aren’t that easy to bring down to everyday life, for her it didn’t matter, since she was something out of this world, and yet, she managed to inspire so many women with her contagious confidence and cheerfulness.
Her important legacy
Celia revolutionized the Latin music industry not only with her talent and presence but also by becoming one of the most important figures of salsa and tropical music, two genres historically dominated by men. Throughout her life, she was recognized with several awards, including seven Grammys. Also, in 1994, she was given the National Medal of Arts, and later that year, she was included in the Billboard’s Latin Music Hall of Fame. In 1998, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music in Yale, and the following year, she was inducted into the International Latin Hall of Fame.
During the last years of her life, in 2000, she founded the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music that’s still open for young people who want to pursue a career in music. In addition, she became the first Latin-American woman to get a star in Hollywood's Walk of Fame, joining legends such as Aretha Franklin. In 2003, she passed away due to brain cancer, leaving a huge hole in the hearts of those who grew up dancing and singing to her music full of tradition, innovation, emotion, and fire that made everyone dance.
Here are some of her songs that get everyone dancing
If you're in need of some Celia in your life, these great songs will fill your heart with joy and rhythm.
What’s important to understand about Celia Cruz, is that her unique character and talent had no comparison at the time, and she managed to conquer an industry that left people of color behind, especially women. But more importantly, she made the world fall in love with rhythms ingrained in Latino culture.
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