Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, Celia Cruz would go on to be known as the “Queen of Salsa” or the “Queen of Latin Music.” Born in Cuba in 1925, her music rose to prominence in the 1950s as a vocalist for the Sonara Matancera group. Mastering a range of Afro-Cuban music styles such as guaracha, rumba, afro, son, and bolero, and coupled with her determined and unrelenting work ethic, she mastered each of these genres and gained widespread fame as a local star.
Following the Cuban Revolution in 1960, she moved to the United States—she would claim it is as her permanent home and become a leading voice for Cubans in exile. It was also in the US that her international career would blossom.
In the 1960s, she collaborated with numerous Latin American artists living in the US. The most notable of these is Tito Puente with whom she recorded her signature tune “Bemba Colorá”. In the 1970s, freshly-signed to Fania Records, the most popular recording company for Latin musicians at the time, she became closely associated with salsa music. It is at Fania Records that she recorded “Quimbara”, the first of her many salsa hits. The Fania Records years of Cruz’s career are some of her most productive. She recorded numerous songs and toured widely. She even performed in Kinshasa, in the then Zaire, as part of the festivities preceding the historic Rumble In The Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
A tour de force on the stage, Cruz’s stage performances were defined by her superb vocal talents, extravagant costumes and colourful wigs, and superstar aura—she was a one-woman carnival who sold out concerts without ever missing a beat.
Cruz’s career was defined by constant artistic production—37 studio albums to her name alone. And that is without including the numerous live albums or collaborations she released with other artists. Like Puente, she continued to record and perform into her later years, producing internationally successful songs like “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” and “La Negra Tiene Tumbao”. She won two Grammy Awards as well as three Latin Grammy Awards. Her star power was such that it also propelled her into acting; she made several appearances in telenovelas and films.
Street names, stars on various boulevards, and even music schools named after her—Celia Cruz is just one of the brightest stars that Latin Music has produced, and her legacy continues to grow long after her passing in 2003.
Azúcar Negra, , Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, La Negra Tiene Tumbao, and Regalo del Alma are just some of Celia Cruz’s recommended albums, special and iconic rites of passage for anyone interested in the history of salsa music, and staples for any dancer on their journey through rhythm.
“¡Azúcar!” (“Sugar!”)—her catchphrase—has become one of the most recognisable symbols of salsa music.
More sugar. More salsa.
Long live the queen!
La Vida Es Un Carnaval
La Negra Tiene Tumbao
Cover Image: © Amazon Music