Angélique Kidjo Celebrates The 'Strength' Of Celia Cruz Celia Cruz always embraced salsa's African roots — and West African musician Angélique Kidjo embraced her right back. Kidjo recently sat down with Alt.Latino to talk about Cruz's influence on her.
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Angélique Kidjo Celebrates Celia Cruz: 'Everything About Celia Is Self-Determination'

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Angélique Kidjo Celebrates Celia Cruz: 'Everything About Celia Is Self-Determination'

Angélique Kidjo Celebrates Celia Cruz: 'Everything About Celia Is Self-Determination'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As long as there's Cuba, there will be salsa music. And as long as there's salsa, there will always be Celia Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEMBA COLORA")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: Celia Cruz is the subject of the latest installment of our series Turning the Tables. We've been reinterpreting the history of popular music by putting women front and center. But you hardly have to do that with Cruz. Her extraordinary career lasted more than 50 years. Before she died in 2003, she released dozens of albums, won numerous awards, including two Grammys, and earned the title Queen of Salsa. Cruz was Cuban, and she always embraced her and salsa's African roots.

And Afropop legend Angélique Kidjo embraced her right back. She recently released an album of Celia Cruz songs. Then Kidjo sat down with Felix Contreras, host of the NPR podcast Alt.Latino to talk about the enduring impact Celia Cruz had on her career and life.

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: The first time I heard Celia Cruz was on album, the album with Johnny Pacheco, the blue album where "Quimbara" was on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIMBARA")

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KIDJO: Then it hits me that women can do salsa and can sing salsa, too. So she came to perform in Africa, and I happened to be one of the few that went to see her because I wanted to see with my own eyes that it was a woman because till then, for me, salsa has always been a male endeavor because, in Africa, we love salsa, and every salsa group was only male guy.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Wow.

KIDJO: So for me, it was like, a woman singing salsa? I want to go see it for myself.

CONTRERAS: So this is in 1974, when she went to perform...

KIDJO: Yep.

CONTRERAS: ...With the Fania All-Stars in Zaire.

KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: Which was a very, very big deal for not just Celia, but for the - all of the Fania All-Stars because they were taking - like you said, they were taking salsa, which has African roots, they were taking the Afro Cuban music back to Africa. And the reception, when you see them - there is a film made of that concert. And when you see the reception, it was like Africa was welcoming her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRUZ: Muchas gracias. Merci beaucoup.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Celia Cruz, s'il vous plait. For Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Foreign language spoken).

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KIDJO: Oh yeah, we love her so much in Africa. We love salsa so much. So I mean, Africa has always been something really close to Celia. In her earlier career, she has never shied away from her African roots.

And I was fortunate, in the late '80s, early '90s, that a friend of mine, a journalist, radio journalist called Remy Kolpa Kopoul - we call him RKK - and every time we do an interview, he always asks me two, three or four songs that you want to play on this show, and I always pick a song from Celia. And one day he called me and said, Celia is coming to play in Paris. And I was - it was around 7-something p.m., and I was already in front of my TV in my PJs. And I said, what? Celia in Paris? He said, you want to meet Celia or not? I said, this is not a joke. If it is a joke, I mean, I will hate you forever.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: He said, no, you - start getting dressed. While you're talking, you're missing an opportunity. So we arrive there, and all the musicians were already onstage. She was alone in the dressing room. And I think Remy called ahead, and she knew we were coming. So we come in, and then, of course, Remy knew Celia. They start speaking Spanish - blah, blah, blah. I was like, OK, ergh (ph). What about me?

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: And then he introduces me. And then Celia said - called me, mi hermana Africana, mi hermana. And then that was where - I mean, it was - I couldn't even talk anymore. And I couldn't speak Spanish. Even though I understand a lot of it, I couldn't speak it. And I said, I love your song, "Quimbara." She said, really? And I go, (singing) quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba (ph).

And then she go, oh, oh, oh, you know the song?

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: You're going to sing with me on stage. I said yes. I thought she was joking. And then she called me on stage. And I'm never going to forget the face of her husband - I mean, the face he made.

CONTRERAS: Pedro Knight.

KIDJO: Because he - but he didn't know.

CONTRERAS: Yeah.

KIDJO: But he didn't know. So he said, he invited - she invited me. And her husband just looked at me like, what in the world is this circus? And so I said something to him, and he goes, OK, if you say start the song, I'm starting the song. So I went and Celia go, (singing) quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Ay ma ma, ay oh (ph).

And I start my porridge (ph) of Spanish singing.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: She was cracking up laughing. She was laughing so hard. And I look at her, and she said, what are you doing? You making a fool of yourself. So I said, OK, I'm done. And I give her back the microphone and run off stage (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIMBARA")

CRUZ: (Singing) Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba. Ay ma ma, ay ma ma, ay ma ma, ay ma ma.

CONTRERAS: I would suspect that there's some people, whenever you're going to say, OK, we're going to redo some Celia Cruz music, there are some people who would say, no, don't touch it because it's perfect all the - it's perfect the way it is, right?

KIDJO: Mmm hmm.

CONTRERAS: But did you have any concerns about that going into this project?

KIDJO: No, because I never wanted to be Celia. I wanted to give back what Celia gave me. The strength for me to be a woman in the music business, she gave me that strength. She gave me the endless possibility that what we women decide to do, we can do. We're still talking about the #MeToo movement today. We're talking about women's rights. We're talking about women empowerment. But we are our own worst enemy because we always doubt our capacity, our possibilities, our challenges and our skills. Men don't question twice. When you give them a position, a high position, they embrace it and take it.

We're still in this position where - because we have been raised like that, to be subdued, to be wives, to be the one that cares, but never think about ourselves to be at the forefront of any decision, of any managerial position or just lead the world. We're always doubting our own power. And Celia had said to me, by going on stage and saying azucar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AZUCAR NEGRA")

CRUZ: (Singing) Azucar, azucar.

KIDJO: The way she dressed - everything about Celia is self-determination, is an affirmation. You can be whoever you want to be, just have to have the courage to embrace yourself. Don't mind what people have to say. You've got to be who you want to be because if you have to listen to everybody - my grandmother told me that if you let people talk about you and make you make decisions based upon what they are saying, you let them - defining you, you're never going to have your life.

So Celia was me - for me, not just the talk that my grandmother gave me, but the exemplification of it, the existence of define yourself, tell your own story, stand for who you are, be proud of who you are and just move into the world, walk elegantly, walk with power, walk with dignity, walk with azucar, with joy and panache.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AZUCAR NEGRA")

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: That was Angélique Kidjo and NPR's Felix Contreras on the enduring influence of Celia Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AZUCAR NEGRA")

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

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