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Celia Cruz
Mi Vida es Cantar
RMM Records RMD 82068

celia cruz -she's back green

Anytime 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.

There's 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.

Verdict: For collectors and completists only.


And now
a look back...

Looking 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.

Cruz 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 a bongo.

This 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.

When 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 to start.

From 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.

Many 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.

Buying 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.

Celia Cruz
Cuba's Queen of Rhythm
Seeco STR 90503

The 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.


Celia Cruz
Son con Guaguanco
Tico SLP 1143

The 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.


Celia Cruz &
 Tito Puente
Cuba y Puerto Rico Son…
Tico SLP 1136

This 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 only drag.


Celia Cruz &
 Johnny Pacheco
Celia & Johnny
Vaya (Fania) VS-31

Previously 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.

Celia Cruz &
 Johnny Pacheco
Tremendo Cache
Vaya (Fania) VSCD-37

The 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 danceable.

Celia Cruz &
 Willie Colon
Only They Could Have Made This Album
Vaya (Fania) JMVS66

By 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.

The only drawback is that the sound quality is a bit murky.

The cover photo with our stars looking like members of the Bee Gees is a real plus.


Celia Cruz y
 la Sonora Ponceña
La Ceiba
Vaya (Fania) JMVS 84

La 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.

Celia Cruz
RMM Records CDZ 81452

Willy 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.

Also Recommended:
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.

Sony/Globo have a pair of Greatest Hits discs, which are to be avoided for their third generation recordings.

After 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!

Shopping 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.



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