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Posted May 23, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Music

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By Teresa Wiltz | Washington Post Staff Writer

To describe Celia Cruz is to invoke hyperbole: She was La Reina de Salsa , the Queen of Salsa, she was thunder and lightning, she was a force of Mama Nature wrapped in chocolate skin, broad of nose and broader of smile, a woman for whom joy was everything and the only thing. When she growled her trademark ” Azcar! “, you knew that she was talking about much more than sugar, but referring as well to her ancestors, slaves who worked the sugar fields of Cuba, of escaping hard times, of an approach to living: The sweeter, the better.

Life was made that much sweeter by some ghetto-fabulous wigs, over-the-top duds and shoes that would do Imelda proud. So much so that at her wake in Miami, there were pauses in the action so that la Reina could make two final costume changes. She would’ve wanted it that way.

And now, nearly two years after her death from brain cancer, the National Museum of American History has launched a retrospective, “Azcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz,” spanning the Cuban singer’s six-decade career as a much-adored singer. She made more than 80 recordings and collected five Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Arts and three honorary doctorates. Curated by Marvette Perez, the exhibition will travel the country.

It begins with her beginnings: She was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in 1925 in the working-class Havana neighborhood Santos Suarez. Her father, Simon, wanted her to be a teacher. Singing wasn’t an honorable profession. She did it anyway. There are pictures of her as a pouty baby, as a serious girl facing her first Communion and as a beaming, pony-tailed young chanteuse in the ‘40s, singing son and rumba, Cuba’s native rhythms. From there, it traces her move to Mexico and her defection to the United States.

There is footage of her performing with Tito Puente, the New York-born godfather of salsa who gave her an orchestra. All of this is lovingly and exhaustively detailed, with archival video footage, nine costumes, scads of wigs, her crazy, heel-less platform shoes, never-before published photos, music videos and a moving, 12-minute documentary of her life, with Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones, David Byrne and Johnny Pacheco, among others, talking about her fabulousness. (Then, too, there is a heartbreaking interview with her husband of 42 years, Pedro Knight, a man clearly unmoored by the death of his wife, who says that throughout their marriage they were together “25 hours of the day.”)

It’s such an exhaustive exhibition that it’s surprising, and disappointing, that the not-so-happy moments in her life are glossed over. Yes, she left Cuba, six months after Fidel Castro took over. But there’s no explanation of why she left, beyond that the revolution brought a lot of changes for musicians. (Well, yeah, and um, everybody else on the island, too.) There is, however, a picture of her leaving the country, standing by an airplane she’s about to board. And she looks royally ticked, a departure from her normally sunny demeanor. You look at it, and you want to know: What happened there? Perhaps we can find a hint in her song “Cuando Sal De Cuba,” (“When I Left Cuba”): “When I left Cuba / I left my heart / I left my love. . . . ” (She never went back. She tried, when her mother died in 1962, but Castro refused to let her into the country, a decision that broke her heart and hardened her resolve to never return.)

The exhibition gives only passing mention to troubles that she encountered in her new homeland: There is a copy of her wedding certificate to trumpeter Knight, the love of her life. They wed in 1962 in Connecticut. His profession is listed as “musician”; hers, “housework.” By this time, she was already a household name throughout Latin America and had performed throughout the States, as well.

The exhibition also calls for a little more context, particularly along matters of race. Before the revolution—and some say, after it, as well—Cuba was a country rived by race. As an Afro-Cubana living in a country where even the mulatto dictator Fulgencio Batista was barred from joining the Yacht Club there, Cruz must have encountered racism. One of her first performing gigs was singing with a group of dancers called “Las Mulattas del Fuego” (“The Fiery Mulattas”). Then, too, there are pictures of dancers in the Tropicana, a famous nightclub, prancing with dolls in blackface.

Context is needed here, because Cruz embraced her blackness with gusto, often performing in afro wigs and dashiki caftans in the height of the ‘60s and ‘70s, always acknowledging her African roots in her music, and singing, “I’m so proud of being black / I’m so proud of my black people.” (She also had fun with it, too, singing boastfully in her last album, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” that is, “The Black Lady’s Got Funk.”) And at the same time, she transcended race, becoming, as her manager Omer Padillo-Sid described her, “the passport to Latin America,” with Latinos of all colors adoring her with a fervor on par with fans of the Beatles, Elvis, Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

Azcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz , a bilingual exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, opens today on the Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., except Christmas Day. Admission is free. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://americanhistory.si.edu/celiacruz

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