Turning The Tables With A Voice Of Experience From Celia Cruz
NOTE: This story is part of NPR’s ongoing “Turning The Tables” series about women the lives and legacies of women who helped shaped modern music. See the full series here.
BY DEBORAH PAREDEZ
By the time I saw Celia Cruz in concert, she had already released more than 40 albums over the course of a career that spanned nearly half a century and had long established herself as the reigning Queen of Salsa. It was the spring of 1995 at the Aragon Ballroom in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, and the city was just beginning its muddy thaw.
She was 69; I was 24. One of us managed to sing and dance until the early morning hours without a break.
I was joined that night by a handful of other 20-something-year-old friends, fellow graduate students who hailed from far-flung points on the diasporic map. Some of us had grown up listening to our parents play Cruz records, while others of us had only recently come to recognize her voice as we sang along to her iconic version of “Guantanamera” (first recorded in 1968) on the 1991 Mambo Kings soundtrack.
During our time in Chicago, we’d all forged a bond through the rituals of intellectual debate, frequent huddling on blustery elevated train platforms and, above all, regular salsa dancing. One of us was a Puerto Rican raised in California and shaped by years of Jesuit education who’d traveled to Cuba to cut cane during the Special Period; another was a Chilean conguero whose family was forced to leave Santiago after Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and who grew up in Indiana. One of us was a Hampton-educated black American military brat born on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base when her father was stationed there in the early ’70s; and then there was me, a Tejana with flimsy Spanish who’d learned how to gallop along to a Mexican cumbia long before I’d ever learned to catch the Caribbean clave beat.
Salsa, a musical genre that has long defied classification and a singular origin story, is generally understood to have developed in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City during a period marked by the generative contact among growing numbers of Latinx immigrants from throughout Latin America and most especially from across the Caribbean. Nationalist sentiments inform the longstanding debates about salsa’s origins. There are some (like Cruz herself) who claim that salsa emerged primarily from Cuban musical styles like son, guaracha and rumba. Others trace its roots to the confluence of Latin American styles like Puerto Rican bomba and Colombian cumbias as well as Cuban traditions. Some of us agree with all of the above; salsa scholar Frances Aparicio defines salsa as “a conjunction of Afro-Cuban music (el son) and rhythms of Puerto Rican bombas and plenas, and of African American jazz instrumentation and structures.”
Salsa’s Afro-diasporic rhythms keep your center of gravity low as you move across space and its Spanish-language lyrics keep your mind moving from romantic love to commentaries about the social and political conditions of Latinx life. Rhythmically, lyrically and kinesthetically, salsa carries in it and urges us to move within the traditions of survival and innovation among communities historically subjected to plantation slavery and the forces of migration across the Americas. In other words, salsa is quintessentially American music.
Cruz’s voice is synonymous with salsa. It is earth and star, the iron heated until it glows and struck until it curves, a warm and deep contralto that melts the boundaries of gender. Rich as molasses but agile as the hand wielding the knife that cuts the cane. A voice whose sonorous tones and dexterous enunciations capture both the toils and virtuosity of black Cuban labor and the delight in the fruit it bears.
It’s hard to overemphasize the significance of Cruz’s presence as a black woman, of the sound of her voice resounding within and hovering above the overwhelmingly (and indeed, at that time, exclusively) male-dominated and hyper-masculinist realm of salsa. Sure, there was Cruz’s contemporary, La Lupe, a woefully underappreciated and ultimately ostracized female vocalist, but the salsa industry only made room for one woman in that era and that woman was Celia Cruz. Luckily for me, her voice carried past that moment in time, carried within it lessons in presence and stamina.
Salsa experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1990s due, for better or worse, to the widespread commercialization of the genre. But even as salsa and countless other “Latin” products were discovered and marketed as part of a larger cultural “Latin Boom,” many of us continued to mark out a hallowed space for ourselves on the rapidly commodifying dancefloor. For Aparicio and for those of us who spent the better part of the 1990s dancing to its rhythms, salsa was in many ways “the quintessential musical marker of latinidad [Latinx identification] in the United States and in Latin America.” The salsa from this period, generally referred to as salsa romántica, is often derided for its lack of musical sophistication or lyrical gravitas that marked salsa music of the golden era in the 1960s and 1970s. And while this claim is not entirely wrong, it fails to account for the feminist interventions in the genre made by salsa artists of the 1990s like La India and for the enduring presence and contributions of Cruz herself.
By the time my friends and I arrived at the Aragon Ballroom, we’d endured winter by making the rounds to several of the thriving local salsa clubs or to each other’s living rooms where we’d clear the furniture to make space for dancing. In regular rotation that year were songs like the title track from Cruz’s 1993 album Azucar Negra and La India’s 1994 feminist salsa anthem, “Ese Hombre.” In Cruz’s song we could hear the pronouncement of black diasporic blood memory — “mi sangre es azucar negra” (“my blood is black sugar”) — and an insistence that salsa would carry us through the everyday and the holy days — “soy calle y soy carnaval” (“I am the street and the carnival”). Her song reminded us that the rhythms to which we moved were drawn from both the source of our people’s long laboring and were, as well, its exalted product — “soy la caña y el café” (“I am the cane and the coffee”).
For us, Cruz’s longevity created a space for the arrival of La India, a Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-bred salsera from our generation who got her start in the Latin freestyle music scene in the mid-1980s. In La India’s song (frequently played on repeat at home and always requested of the club’s DJ), we rejoiced in her rueful subversion of the romántica trope and structure of salsa romántica. Her lyrics begin, “Ese hombre que tu ves ahi / que parace tan galante” (“That man that you see over there / who seems so gallant”), and then just as the horns blare and your body launches into its first sequence of moves, she turns generic convention on its head with the chorus, “Es un gran necio / un payaso vanidoso” (“Is a great fool / a vain clown”).
Both Cruz’s and La India’s songs played on the same dance mixes that we made or DJ set lists that spun at the clubs during that time. For us, Cruz was not just an emblem of salsa’s grand past but a relevant and vibrant force that continued to charge its present and shape its future. She continually reinvented herself over time while maintaining an immutable sense of her signature divinity like a classic diva. So, sure, we flocked to her concert that spring because we wanted to be in the presence of a living legend, to bow (and turn and glide and shuffle and spin) before the Queen. But, mostly, as 20-something-year-olds, we came because we wanted to dance to rhythms that resonated with our current lives. We understood that as a true diva, Cruz was of her time and capable of transcending it. We came because we had faith in her power to transport us along with her across this continuum.
By the time Cruz took to the Aragon Ballroom stage in her custom-made, gravity-defying shoes and called out to us with her signature shout — ¡Azucar! — it was 1 a.m. By then, I’d already broken a sweat warming up to the opening acts and had even taken a brief disco nap on the bench of a booth while the ice melted in my cocktail. Cruz opened her mouth, the band lifted their horns and we came together on the dancefloor.
Some of us danced “on the 1” (step-step-step-pause); others “on the 2” (pause-step-step-step). To those who were perhaps more sophisticated (or maybe just more rigid) than we were at the time, what you danced on or where you took the pause in salsa was often regarded as a defining measure of authenticity. The pause, as dance scholar Cindy Garcia observes, “is the most crucial component of the dance — potentially sensual and volatile.” Maybe because we were naïve or maybe because we knew we’d never measure up or maybe because of our developing feminist consciousness, we just took turns taking the lead. Whether on the one or on the two, for us, it all added up to a sum greater than our individual parts. To learn how to salsa was to learn about your relationship to time, about how to measure it and move to it and dwell in its pauses.
That night at the Aragon, Cruz sang out, “La rumba me esta llamando” (“The rumba is calling me”), the opening lyrics of her signature 1974 hit “Quimbara,” and we answered the call. I danced to the song with my girlfriends, sharing the lead, feeling for the pause and trying to keep up with Cruz’s vocal gymnastics and the tempo’s wild acceleration. Salsa dancing was how we were coming to know who we were in relation to one another as fellow black and brown women. And dancing to “Quimbara,” with its impossibly fast rhythms and tumbling lyrics, not only offered us a source of deeply embodied pleasure but trained us to outmaneuver and outspeak and outrun any foes who sought to hunt us down.
The year after her concert at the Aragon, Cruz recorded a duet with La India called “La Voz de la Experiencia.” The song, written by La India, is at once an homage to Cruz as La Reina de La Salsa and an enactment of the crowning of La India, La Princesa de La Salsa, as the successor to the throne.
The duet moves from batá drumming to high brass, from secular salsa romántica arrangements to invocations of the Yoruba deity, Yemaya. Throughout, the women take turns admiring one another, and their declarations act as well as an acknowledgement of the larger cultural and national influences each woman brings to the genre as an Afro-Cuban and a New York City-raised Puerto Rican. Thus, both musically and lyrically, as Frances Aparicio has written, the song acknowledges and embodies the diasporic range of salsa’s traditions rather than succumbing to the nationalist tendencies that have framed the debates about salsa’s origins. It’s no surprise to me that it took two women singing together in a predominantly masculine genre for this to happen.
On the surface, the duet is framed as a lesson in diva mentorship with La India seeking counsel and Cruz, as the anointed “voice of experience,” imparting her wisdom about how to make it as a woman in the business: “Con profesionalismo, creyendo en uno mismo / Se siempre original, nunca vayas a cambiar / Tienes que estar en control / Ten control control”(“With professionalism, believing in yourself / Always be original, never change / You’ve got to be in control / Have control, control”). Admittedly, the advice is, at best, aphoristic. But for me, that’s not where the song’s power lies. What continues to inspire me even after all these years is the sound of two women unabashedly worshiping one another in a highly exclusionary space that would otherwise have them competing for the one token “girl” spotlight.
It’s a song they sang together live on a number of occasions, most notably, perhaps, during Cruz’s televised concert for PBS, Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, that took place in Hartford, Conn. on May 12, 1999. By the time La India joins Cruz onstage that night for their duet, the audience is already dancing in the crowded aisles and Cruz has changed her costume from a rumba-style ruffled polka-dotted dress to a dazzlingly sequined floor-length outfit (with matching headpiece, of course) composed of multi-colored, diamond-shaped geometric prints.
Watching the footage of it now, exactly twice the age I was when I first saw Cruz at the Aragon, what I find moving is how the duet showcases two women of some experience — neither of whom what anyone would call thin or young or fair-skinned — publicly performing their mutual adoration and encouraging each other’s virtuosic capacities, their voices barreling across time and space, their bodies catching the clave as they dance cucaracha side steps in sync with one another. Knowing who they are in relation to one another as fellow black and brown women.
By the time I write this, it’s the last days of a summer marred by the targeted massacre of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in El Paso, migrant refugees dying in detention along the border, continued governmental disregard of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and ICE raids targeting undocumented workers in the Midwest, and I’m not much in the mood to talk about singing and dancing. But then, hasn’t salsa always ever been in some ways about the struggles embedded in and transformed through its lyrics and rhythms? Isn’t Cruz’s voice made of the soil on which we’ve toiled, the earth and the harvest our people have culled from it? ¡Azucar!
At the end of the performance of their duet in 1999, La India falls to her knees at Cruz’s feet in a grand diva successor act of worship. Cruz immediately responds matter-of-factly with the command, “¡Levantate! ¡Levantate!” Get up, she instructs. It’s time to get to our feet. Time to rise. There’s work to be done. New movements to learn and to join. Tienes que estar en control. Ten control control.
Deborah Paredez is a poet and performance scholar and the author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. She is co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latinx poets, and a professor of creative writing and ethnic studies at Columbia University. She’s currently at work on a book about divas.