Celia Cruz: The Voice From Havana The Cuban singer, known worldwide as the "Queen of Salsa," grew up in neighborhoods where music was always in the air. She traveled for 15 years with the Sonora Matancera orchestra and settled in Fort Lee, N.J., home base for a decades-long career.
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Celia Cruz: The Voice From Havana

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Celia Cruz: The Voice From Havana

Celia Cruz: The Voice From Havana

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D: NPR's Noah Adams is going to get to know her better now, by focusing on one particular song.

NOAH ADAMS: Here's the cut we'll be playing. Celia Cruz sings "Quimbara."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIMBARA")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: Celia Cruz was born in 1925 in Havana, and grew up in a music-filled neighborhood. She traveled for 15 years with a Cuban orchestra, and did not go back home when Fidel Castro took over.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: I wanted to get a better understanding of the sound, the voice of Celia Cruz on "Quimbara." I knew Charles Williams could help. He sang opera for years and now he's a vocal coach. I'd met him back in the summer at a music camp in West Virginia. So I asked Charles Williams for his evaluation of this singer. I'd kept it a surprise, he didn't know who he'd be listening to.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: This is Celia Cruz.

CHARLES WILLIAMS: Oh, Celia Cruz. Havana, Cuba. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: My God, what a goddess.

ADAMS: Listen to Cruz sing. Her voice seems to come from a point two feet in front of her face.

WILLIAMS: Well, absolutely. That's her loudspeaker. You know, when I teach I'm always saying, hey, you got to keep the tone in the bone, you know, right from the cheekbones forward. And because that's your carrying power. That's your meddle, that's your bite.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

WILLIAMS: And then she drowned it, but it's in her body. So you got the right combination of coffee and milk, and you get this dark light sound. This creaminess, you know, that's very exciting.

ADAMS: She settled in Fort Lee, New Jersey, married her trumpet player Pedro Knight. They would be together for 41 years until her death. She worked with Tito Puente's band, made dozens of albums.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: How does it make you feel? That's a long time ago?

JON FAUSTY: It makes me feel great. I mean, I feel proud because it's truly a classic, "Quimbara."

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

FAUSTY: Celia was so good at tongue twisters. And if you listen to the lyric of that music, it would take a tongue twister specialist to be able to execute the lyric.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: The studio session was in New York City. A young Jon Fausty helped create a new Celia Cruz sound. Always before, she'd be recorded on a microphone in front of the whole band, just like at a nightclub. The "Quimbara" session was multi-track - a separate track for the congas, a separate track for the timbales, one for the trumpets, the piano. And that mix is what Cruz would hear in her headphones as she sang. She'd be surrounded by driving percussion and the splash of brass.

FAUSTY: She didn't have to get it right the first time. But she had a chance in the overdub of the vocal to redo a part if she wasn't totally satisfied, without having the band to have to play it over again.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

CARMEN RIVERA: I actually got a chance to see her live at SOB's here in New York, which is a pretty small club.

ADAMS: This is Carmen Rivera, a New York-based playwright.

RIVERA: She performed and it was astounding. She started performing from the dressing - the basement, in the dark. The lights went down, she started performing in this booming contra alto voice that she had; came, you know, resonated through the whole place and it made the whole place feel like Madison Square Garden.

ADAMS: Carmen Rivera and her husband Candido Tirado wrote the play "Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz." It ran Off-Broadway, played in Miami and recently in Chicago.

CANDIDO TIRADO: She lived such a sound life, a lot of people didn't think there was a story there.

ADAMS: Tirado and Rivera did see tragedy in the life of a singer in exile who couldn't go home for her mother's funeral. In preparation for their writing, they watched a lot of video footage of Celia Cruz, especially television shows. And while viewing a Telemundo tribute, filmed just before Cruz passed away, the playwrights found the center of their story.

RIVERA: When she came out for a bow, she looked lovely. She was all in silver with a silver wig. And she can rock a silver wig looking elegant and beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RIVERA: And Pedro Knight, her husband, is watching her and he's crying.

TIRADO: And there's so much love in his eyes.

RIVERA: Yeah.

TIRADO: And so much pain 'cause she was already very ill. And we said that's the story.

RIVERA: Those eyes.

TIRADO: Those eyes is the story.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

ADAMS: Noah Adams, NPR News.

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)

: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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