Music world mourns Cruz, the flamboyant queen of salsa

Celia Cruz, the undisputed diva of salsa and one of the greatest performers in the history of Afro-Cuban music, has died of a brain tumour at the age of 77.

Celia Cruz, the undisputed diva of salsa and one of the greatest performers in the history of Afro-Cuban music, has died of a brain tumour at the age of 77.

Her husband of 41 years, Pedro Knight, was by her side at her home in New Jersey. She had been ill for months.

Along with the percussionist Tito Puente, with whom she worked for many years, the flamboyant Cruz was largely responsible for the worldwide popularity of salsa.

She was hailed as one the greatest female singers of the 20th century, the Latin equivalent to Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a Cuban based in the US it was inevitable that she was also seen as a political symbol.

To the 700,000 Cuban exiles in Miami she was a stalwart of the anti-Castro movement.

She had been in poor health since undergoing surgery last December, and premature reports of her death on Miami radio stations in recent weeks led to public displays of grief.

According to media reports, her body will be taken to Miami, where a huge memorial service is expected.

Cruz had a remarkable history. It is thought that she was born in 1925 in a poor part of Havana, though she remained tight-lipped about her age for most of her life.

She originally planned to become a teacher but that changed when her cousin entered her for a radio talent show, which she won.

After a series of amateur appearances, and studies at the Havana Conservatory of Music, she became lead singer with one of Havana's great bands, the Sonora Matancera, in 1950.

At first the public resisted her appeal, because she was taking over from the star singer Myrta Silva.

But by the final years of the Batista era she was a star herself, performing at clubs like the legendary Tropicana at a time when Havana had become a corrupt centre for well-heeled American gangsters.

Here she first recorded songs that were to become salsa standards, and met Pedro Knight, then a trumpeter with the band and later her husband and manager.

Life for Sonora Matancera, changed after Castro's revolution in 1959, and the next year they all defected.

Celia Cruz was never allowed to return to Cuba again, because, she said, "Castro never forgave me."

In the US she began building a new career with the help of Knight, whom she married in 1962.

At first she found it difficult - young Cubans in the US were more interested in the Beatles or US rock bands - but by the 70s they were rediscovering their roots, and Celia Cruz.

She went on to work with the great US-based Latin musicians, from Willie Colon to the Fania All-Stars, and developed a flamboyant stage show in which she made use of outrageous costumes and wigs and her trademark cry of ¡ azucar! (sugar).

She recorded more than 70 albums, and won numerous awards, remaining a formidable performer to the end.

Now, with her death, a classic era for Latin music has come to an end.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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