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Posted August 04, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Music

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Ed Moralez | Newsday

My personal brush with just how huge Celia Cruz was in the Latin community came quite by accident.

I was at the Village Gate in Manhattan in 1988 for another installment of the sorely missed “Salsa Meets Jazz” series, in which a big name salsa band would play on the same bill as a crack Latin jazz quintet. That night Cruz was going to sing, and as I stood in an aisle between tables, looking for my friend’s table, suddenly a surge of people came in my direction, and Pedro Knight, Cruz’s longtime husband, walked right up to me and hugged me as if I were a long-lost friend.

At that moment, because Cruz’s husband had mistaken me for someone else, it seemed as if his entourage, and then the whole room, and by extension, the whole Latino universe, was showering me with love. Everywhere I turned I was met with smiles and unimaginable warmth created by the expectation of Cruz’s performance. It was that kind%2

The simple facts surrounding Cruz’s career are enough to place her among the greatest Latin music performers of the 20th century. In 1950, she became the lead singer of one of the most important Cuban orchestras, La Sonora Matancera. When she left Cuba in 1960, she exploded onto the New York scene, recording classic albums with the biggest names in the field, such as Tito Puente, Willie Colon and Johnny Pacheco. And when Latin music needed a shot in the arm in the ‘90s, Cruz, along with Tito, led a revival that set the stage for the Latin pop explosion.

But there was something more than just musical talent that made Cruz the cultural icon that attracted tens of thousands of fans to memorial tributes in both Miami and New York. There was something that came from within her that connected with the everyday Latino from any country of origin, something that transcended her Cuban roots. It was her ability to project all that enthusiasm, all that fire, in her music, smoothing over the hardships of the immigrant life, the painful nostalgia for the land left behind.

Even though she avoided being explicitly political in her songs, she had an unmistakable political impact. Her departure from Cuba strongly undermined the notion that Castro’s revolution was a panacea for Cubans of African descent - her recording of “Cuando Sal de Cuba” (“When I Left Cuba”) with Orquesta de Memo Salamanca became an anthem in the exile community. Her strong presence as a woman in a field dominated by men seemed to carry the entire weight of Latinas fighting to make themselves heard. While extremely danceable and uplifting, “Usted Abuso,” (You Took Advantage of Me) which Cruz recorded with Willie Colon in 1977, was a watershed moment for the rejection of machismo.

Cruz was a diva in the sense that her awesome voice and presence commanded the highest level of respect, but she was not the unapproachable one, looking down from a throne. One of the most gracious gestures I saw her give was during an early ‘90s concert in the New Jersey Meadowlands, when she came onstage to do a duet with Nora Shoji, the lead singer of the Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz. Without a hint of trying to establish a hierarchy, she invited Nora into the groove with her, as if she had been singing with her since her Havana days.

As an ambassador of Latin music, Cruz had been quietly expanding her musical palette in the past 10 or so years. Although her hardcore listeners lived and died over her classic versions of “Bemba Colora,” “Quimbara,” “Azucar Negra” and “Gracia Divina,” she began to venture into other Latin music genres. Her 1997 album “Duets” featured collaborations with Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and Latin alternative band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

One of her last classic singles, 1998’s “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” traded on the growing popularity of cumbia. On her Grammy-winning 2002 album “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” her collaboration with nouveau-salsa guru Sergio George introduced reggaeton and soca rhythms, and even a guest rapper, Mikey Perfecto. The quest to blend new elements into what we call salsa continues on her just-issued album “Regalo del Alma,” (Sony Discos), which was wrapped up earlier this year. Her first posthumous release shows no signs of fatigue, or the illness that would soon take her life - a variety of Afro-Caribbean rhythms explode throughout.

Cruz, known as “the queen of salsa,” was famous for beginning her performances with an invocation: she shouted “azucar!” (sugar!). In doing so, she was harking back to the days of Cuban bandleader

Ignacio Pieiro, who yelled “salsa” (hot sauce) during his band’s rendition of his 1932 tune “chale Salsita.” Both exhortations were meant to announce a new level of energy and improvisation both in the band and on the dance floor. Although formally coined by New York graphic artist Izzy Sanabria in the 1970s, the term salsa has its roots in Havana, and it was those roots that Cruz brought to New York to help define the genre.

“Azucar!” became Cruz’s catchword, one that only she could use to announce that special energy, one no one else could quite attain. And although the word could invoke the history of African people in Caribbean, or signal that a fun night was about to begun, in the end it leaves a sweet taste in the mouths of millions of Cruz’s fans, who could always claim a place in the heart of a legend.

Crucial Sonidos

La India will be at Prospect Park Sunday, Aug. 3 ... Ray Barretto will play Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (212-360-1399) on Wednesday ... Ricanstruction plays El Museo del Barrio (212-831-7272) on Thursday ... Ricardo Arjona will be at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (212-307-7171) on Friday ... The Reggaeton Summer Fest will be at Madison Square Garden next Saturday with Tego Calderon, Don Chezina, Don Omar and Wisin & Yandel, special guests Victor Manuelle and Aventura, and 26 other MC and DJ acts.

E-mail Ed Morales at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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