As a music lover, there are some songs you hear and immediately make you want to dance. Even if you cannot dance, the song commands you to move your body to the beat. The Queen of Salsa (La Reina de la Salsa), Celia Cruz, has many songs that fit the prior description. Every time, I hear La Vida Es Un Carnival or the modern classic, Quimbara, dancing ensues. I have listened to those songs many times over the years, but I knew little about Celia’s music on the whole.
A couple of years ago, I found a copy of Celia’s autobiography, Celia: My Life, for a dollar and snap it up. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while and I finally read it. Celia told her life story growing up in pre-Castro Cuba until her last days in 2003, where she had reached the status as the “Queen of Salsa.” Celia described her success and longevity in these words:
The secret doesn’t lie in being fashionable or in prancing around half-naked. Although I have always been very cutting-edge and I have used many styles of music in my repertoire. I don’t adapt myself to a specific style of music just because it’s in vogue. The secret lies in the way you treat your audience. You have to promise to give them the best of your God-given talent.
That’s wisdom from a legend. The book highlighted like her work with the famed Cuban band La Sonora Matancera, the collaborations with the great (one of my absolute favorites) Tito Puente & the incredible Johnny Pacheco, and how she evolved as music tastes changed. Celia talked about her family, especially her parents and Tia Ana. She described her life being a Cuban exile and strong feelings toward Fidel Castro. Also, how she came to use azucar! (sugar) in her performances. Through it all, Celia survived until the end and reading this autobiography opened my eyes to a world I did not have any knowledge of.
It surprised me to learn how many exiled Cuban musicians emigrated to Mexico during the time she was rising to prominence and the connection between the two countries. Of course, they have a shared language, but Celia spoke fondly of the Mexican people and had deep roots with our southern neighbor.
In closing, I’m so glad that I finally read the Queen of Salsa’s autobiography. It gave me a little more insight into the magic of Cruz’s music and her connection to the Spanish-speaking world. Also, she is an American success story as well, and she belongs in the same musical neighborhood as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, & Billie Holiday. Celia: My Life is a must for her fans and I hope a link with others to learn about this incredible and unique talent.