Mi Vida es Cantar
RMM Records RMD 82068
Celia Cruz makes a new record, it's a big event. She's still in
great voice, dances like a dervish and has tremendous stage presence.
We like her a lot.
nothing particularly bad on her new disc Mi Vida Es Cantar,
but there's also nothing particularly memorable. It's very slick
and almost mechanical in its rhythm. The odd graphics on the cover
make the song titles illegible. The recording is unnaturally bright
and almost too sharp. We've listened to the album five times and
unfortunately none of the songs stand out as distinct or unique,
with the exception of the rapid merengue Patica de Chivo.
For collectors and completists only.
a look back...
through our rather vast collection of compact discs, we've counted
36 titles by Celia Cruz. What is it about this Cuban sensation that
we find so intriguing? More often than not, just her name on the
cover insures a good time, top musicians, and the legacy of Latin
music at its best.
has been singing for decades and has always looked as if she's in
her late 40s, despite her real unknown age. She started out in her
native Havana singing on the radio and then hooking up with La Sonora
Matancera, which included trumpet player Pedro Knight, who later
became her husband. Their 15-year collaboration lasted throughout
the 1950s and much of the ‘60s and took them from Cuba to Mexico
and finally to the United States. Our first exposure to Cruz was
through these recordings and we have to admit we were somewhat confused
about the Celia Cruz legend. To our novice ears, Cruz' voice sounded
like a cannon without much subtlety or direct emotional contact.
The observation about the cannons might be true, but her voice is
so pure, it goes right for the jugular. The directness, which at
first is disarming, is later one of the best things about her. All
the little vocal tricks we've grown accustomed to (and even like)
are gone. You'll laugh, but she's almost like Ethel Merman with
brings us to the other aspect that sets Cruz apart from everyone
else, and that's her rhythm. She sings like a percussion instrument,
especially on the call and response sections of her songs, never
repeating herself and the sound is like nothing else, Cuban or otherwise.
first listening to these early recordings, originally on the Seeco
label, there's a tameness to the arrangements that wasn't exactly
inspiring our hips to sway like the palms. It's only after repeated
encounters that you realize that the Sonora Matancera is more like
a slow hot simmer than an outright boil. The clever musical exchanges
are subtle rather than bombastic. This, added to the limitations
of time limits on 78s and 45s, and questionable early stereo recording
techniques, make these recordings not the best place for a novice
1966 to 1972, Cruz recorded for Tico Records, most often with Tito
Puente as a partner or musical director. These recordings range
from the sublime, like her original version of the double entendre
show-stopper Bembe Colora to the ridiculous in her Latinized
versions of the Archies' Sugar Sugar and Age of Aquarius/Let
the Sun Shine In from the play Hair. You can hear the
influence of the more popular boogaloo and shingaling sounds in
some of the recordings but it's basically Puente's big manic brass
that defines the era.
would say Cruz came into her own when she joined the Fania Records
family. It's here that she teamed up with a more mature Johnny Pacheco
(who started out with a rather crude but fun brand of boogaloo)
and made some of the most influential and still fresh sounding recordings
of the salsa movement. In fact it was the house of Fania that really
defined salsa music. To this day, many Cuban aficionados claim salsa
nothing more than Cuban son, but our ears hear a more manic arrangement
that wouldn't have been possible without the New York Puerto Rican
community and New World anxiety. Cruz continued with Fania until
the late 1980s, when she joined RMM Records, where she remains as
of this date, and finally got the recognition by the general
population she deserves, while her recorded output has been somewhat
uneven. The really great Latin records of the last few years have
been more rootsy or jazzy or somewhere in between. RMM specializes
in a very slick product at odds with this trend, but Cruz continues
to sell and it's unlikely that things will change much while she's
at this label.
the definitive Celia Cruz album is impossible because she's made
so many great records. It's also hard when often the early recordings
are repackaged again and again, making it difficult to sort through
her complete discography. There are very few dogs among her albums
but what follows is our guide to her best. To stick only to these
suggestions would be to miss a lot of great music, but it's our
subjective look at where to start.
Cuba's Queen of Rhythm
Seeco STR 90503
original Seeco recordings have since been re-released under many
labels, including Spain's Palladium and now very poorly by Polygram.
In 1990 the original Seeco albums were released in their entirety
with the original album art. This one is one of our favorites, but
all of the others have at least two or three classic numbers that
real fans shouldn't miss. Cuba's Queen of Rhythm includes her peppy
version of the Orchesta Riverside's Me Voy a Pinar del Rio
and the infectious Y Mi Negro Está Cansao.
Son con Guaguanco
Tico SLP 1143
Tico recordings are now available thanks to the Fania label. It's
nice that these recordings are again available but Fania has the
really nasty habit of charging several dollars more for a compact
disc, adding no new or undiscovered tracks and scant, if any, liner
notes. Easily, two complete albums could fit on a CD. Despite these
irritations, the less popular Tico era recordings are mostly upbeat
big band numbers that are hard to resist. Son con Guaguanco
was produced by the late great impresario, Al Santiago, and it's
a great balance of different Latin rhythms and a bolero or two thrown
in for good measure. Timbale great and mambo legend Tito Puente
provided the band, and despite the straightforward arrangements,
there's no denying this recording was made in the 1960s, which isn't
a bad thing. It's a big sound, tailored to dancing, and would prove
difficult as background music.
Cuba y Puerto Rico Son…
Tico SLP 1136
1966 date is a gas. The very first song has Celia shouting a phrase
and Tito answering her on the timbales, all at breakneck speed.
There are plenty of typically great Afro-Cuban pieces but we especially
like seeing what the duo does with the plena, cumbia, bomba and
merengue styles. The "rock" number, Mi Desesperacion is the
Celia & Johnny
Vaya (Fania) VS-31
reviewed in MrLucky, Celia & Johnny is just about
as perfect as perfection can get. It's worth it if only for the
impossible vocalizations of Quimbara, but there's plenty
more. Recorded in 1974, it could have been made yesterday. It sets
the standard for all salsa to follow.
Vaya (Fania) VSCD-37
second pairing of Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco produced an ugly
cover but still more great music, perhaps one of our favorite entire
albums. Again, Celia soars with vocal gymnastics on the opener,
Cucala, but for us the real treats are Tres Dias de Carnival
and Dime Si Llegue a Tiempo. The rhythms don't change much
from song to song but there are lots of great hooks and it's quite
Only They Could Have Made This Album
Vaya (Fania) JMVS66
1977, when this album was made, she was defiantly considered "The
Great Celia Cruz" and Willie Colon had several years of success
behind him. Despite his self-styled image as "salsa's bad boy",
Colon plays a particularly elegant brand of Latin music, distinct
in his use of his trombone as the lead instrument. This disc is
pretty varied in the various brands of Latin styles and several
tracks are knockouts.
only drawback is that the sound quality is a bit murky.
cover photo with our stars looking like members of the Bee Gees
is a real plus.
la Sonora Ponceña
Vaya (Fania) JMVS 84
Sonora Ponceña is a very tight Puerto Rican ensemble that symbolizes
salsa music, for better and for worse, in the minds of many Latin
music fans. On La Ceiba, they're in top form and gave Cruz
one of the many highlights of her recording career. Soy Antillana
is an epic tour de force, starting strong and getting better, even
quoting Rachmaninov. The songs are all well-written and those who
know consider this one of the classics.
RMM Records CDZ 81452
Chirino plays to our ears a particularly loathsome style of Miami
Beach Latin pop, so it was a great surprise to discover how well
1994's Irrepetible comes off. It's very slick and the percussionists
aren't given much chance to solo, but the songs are almost all strong
and Cruz rises above the machine-like precision to deliver some
of her best singing in years. The highlights are Bembelequa
and La Guagua. Among our complaints is the tinny sound of
the piano and the really bad "crossover" Enamorada de Ti,
but it's still more than worthwhile.
Introducing…Celia Cruz (Charly 130) and Canta Celia Cruz
(Charly 308) are both British imports on the Caliente/Charly label,
providing a pretty good overview of Cruz' career and fairly complete
liner notes. Collectors will find lots of duplicate recordings but
it's clear the producers were trying to make a decent retrospective,
not just cash in on the biggest name in Latin music. Charly also
has Double Dynamite (Charly CD HOT 509), a collection of
Tico recordings with Tito Puente, but the complete albums are preferred.
have a pair of Greatest Hits discs, which are to be avoided
for their third generation recordings.
all this, we have to say the best (albeit rare) way to enjoy La
Cruz is live in concert. We saw her a few years back, as part of
Tito Puente's 100th Album tour and she was beyond
belief. In a shimmering gown and page-boy wig (a la Streisand circa
1967), she had more energy, enthusiasm and chops than all of the
youngsters combined. We haven't mentioned her big fat smile or the
way she dances onstage like the devil. We'll leave that for you
to discover for yourself!
Note: Most of these Fania / Vaya / Tico titles are in print, but
they suffer spotty distribution. Descarga
is an excellent source for all types of Afro-Latin music.
information on PDF files and the free Adobe Acrobat Reader