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Celia Cruz: Her Life and Music
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Celia Cruz: Her Life and Music

Music News

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

She was born Celia dela Caridad Cruz Alfonso in Havana, possibly in 1924 or '25. She used to say it was 1929. She left Cuba for the US only six months after Fidel Castro came to power. Celia Cruz died of cancer almost two years ago. Her funeral procession stretched for a mile and a half along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Nearly 100,000 people filed past her coffin in Miami. So it's no wonder that the Smithsonian Institution has dedicated its first major exhibition devoted to a Latina to Celia Cruz. This is only the third time the Smithsonian has so honored a single performing artist. The first two were Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The Celia Cruz show opened this week at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. NPR's Felix Contreras got a tour and has this report.

FELIX CONTRERAS reporting:

Any examination of Celia Cruz has to start with the voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Ms. MARVETTE PEREZ (Curator of Latino History and Culture, National Museum of American History): It had a depth and a power to it that to me always--what it resonates in me, it's a mystery.

CONTRERAS: Marvette Perez is curator of Latino history and culture at the National Museum of American History.

Ms. PEREZ: How is it possible for that voice to be coming from a human being, from somebody, you know? It is as if the Earth opened her mouth to talk and to sing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: But a museum exhibition needs more than a disembodied voice coming from speakers to tell the story of a performer who, for many, was larger than life.

Ms. PEREZ: That's a dress from her tribute, from Telemundo.

Ms. LELIA COBO (Latin Bureau Chief, Billboard): Oh, my God. It's so beautiful. I want it.

CONTRERAS: Lelia Cobo is Latin bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She and Marvette Perez are looking at a display of Cruz's dresses.

Ms. PEREZ: She gets away with wearing very dramatic clothes, really edgy in a way for the times. And what's interesting about what she did is she took this traditional dress and really totally transformed it into something that--it's different.

CONTRERAS: The dresses on display are all variations on a traditional style worn by rumba dancers called bata Cubana. The dresses have billowing sleeves and long, ruffled trains. The style is part Spanish colonial, part Afro-Cuban.

Ms. PEREZ: She wanted to show the world that Cubans had a cultural background, a different kind of culture and tradition.

CONTRERAS: But in Celia Cruz's hands, tradition showed its wild side. There is an elaborate dress with a sequined mosaic of a Cuban sunset over a beach, and a form-fitting bata Cubana based on the design and colors of the Cuban flag.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Cruz left Cuba in 1950 for what was to be a short tour. She decided to settle in the US. When her mother died two years later, she was not allowed by the Castro government to return for the funeral. The telegram Cruz got from her family is in the exhibition. Billboard's Lelia Cobo says the disappointment over not being able to return colored her relationship with her homeland for the rest of her life.

Ms. COBO: She embodied the relationship that so many Cuban expats had with their country. They couldn't go back. This wasn't something that she spoke about in her songs, though this was something that she spoke about a lot in interviews. If you asked her about her relationship to Cuba, she would say what it was, you know. She left Cuba. She never went back. She was opposed to the policies of Fidel Castro. But this is not something that she sang about. She was very outspoken, but when she was on a stage, she was entertaining.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Midway through the exhibition is a re-creation of one of Cruz's dressing rooms.

Ms. PEREZ: Celia spent probably more time in dressing rooms than in any other place.

CONTRERAS: Museum curator Marvette Perez points to a dressing robe monogrammed with sequins, blond and blue wigs and several pairs of outrageous shoes. The makeup mirror is actually a video screen showing the singer doing her face. There are also personal touches that Cruz used to make each dressing room a home away from home, a collection of small, porcelain dark-skinned Afro-Cuban saints and personalized cups and glasses for her and her husband.

Ms. PEREZ: She traveled so much and she performed in so many different places that I wanted to create or re-create a space of transformation to show that somebody comes from the street and changes her clothes and becomes the performer to go into the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

(Spanish spoken)

CONTRERAS: Celia Cruz found a style that would define the rest of her career in 1970s New York working with an upstart independent label called Fania.

Ms. COBO: I'm looking at this picture that they have here and it's such an incredible picture.

CONTRERAS: Billboard's Lelia Cobo points to Celia Cruz with the Fania All-Stars.

Ms. COBO: First of all because there's Celia and she's the only woman and she's surrounded by all these guys and every one of them is a huge name in the history of Latin music.

CONTRERAS: The all-stars included Ruben Blades, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco and Hector Lavoe. It was the time when the term `salsa' was coined and Celia Cruz earned the respect of its players and fans. There is a six-foot video display in the exhibition featuring Cruz performing with the Fania All-Stars.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUZ: Azukar!

CONTRERAS: The name of the exhibition is "Azukar!: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz" which requires a bit of explaining. The literal translation for `azukar' is `sugar.' But like a James Brown growl or a Bruce Springsteen yelp, `azukar' took on a personal meaning when Cruz shouted it out.

Ms. PEREZ: `Azukar' is her battle cry, the way in which she injected the music with, you know, that extra serving of savor.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Smithsonian curator Marvette Perez says `azukar' also alludes to African slaves who worked on sugar plantations in Cuba.

Ms. PEREZ: People usually talk about this being happy music. There's a revelry to this music and a power to this music that it's born out of the experience of slavery in many ways, and it connects to other experiences. When she yells, when she screams this, the complexity of all of these elements together comes forward and she's telling you, `There's a power to my revelry and to my happiness, but it's not a simple one.'

CONTRERAS: And that's what the exhibition "Azukar!" tries to do, convey the complexities of a woman whose music, for so many fans, represents pure, simple joy.

Felix Contreras, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

LUDDEN: You can hear the Queen of Salsa perform and see video from the Smithsonian exhibit at our Web site, npr.org.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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