The Life and Music of Celia Cruz

To describe Celia Cruz is to invoke hyperbole: She was La Reina de Salsa , the Queen of Salsa, she was thunder and lightning, she was a force of Mama Nature wrapped in chocolate skin, broad of nose and broader of smile, a woman for whom joy was everything and the only thing. When she growled her trademark "Azúcar!", you knew that she was talking about much more than sugar, but referring as well to her ancestors, slaves who worked the sugar fields of Cuba, of escaping hard times, of an approach to living: The sweeter, the better.

Life was made that much sweeter by some ghetto-fabulous wigs, over-the-top duds and shoes that would do Imelda proud. So much so that at her wake in Miami, there were pauses in the action so that la Reina could make two final costume changes. She would've wanted it that way.

From the National Museum of American History a retrospective, "Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz," spanning the Cuban singer's six-decade career as a much-adored singer. She made more than 80 recordings and collected five Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Arts and three honorary doctorates.

It begins with her beginnings: She was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in 1925 in the working-class Havana neighborhood Santos Suarez. Her father, Simon, wanted her to be a teacher. Singing wasn't an honorable profession. She did it anyway. There are pictures of her as a pouty baby, as a serious girl facing her first Communion and as a beaming, pony-tailed young chanteuse in the '40s, singing son and rumba, Cuba's native rhythms. From there, it traces her move to Mexico and her defection to the United States.

There is image of her with Tito Puente, the New York-born godfather of salsa who gave her an orchestra. All of this is lovingly and exhaustively detailed, with archival never-before published photos.

It's such an exhaustive collection. She left Cuba six months after Fidel Castro took over, but there's no explanation of why she left, beyond that the revolution brought a lot of changes for musicians. (and everybody else on the island, too.) A departure from her normally sunny demeanor and you want to know: What happened there? Perhaps we can find a hint in her song "Cuando Salí De Cuba," ("When I Left Cuba"): "When I left Cuba / I left my heart / I left my love. . . . " (She never went back. She tried, when her mother died in 1962, but Castro refused to let her into the country, a decision that broke her heart and hardened her resolve to never return).

The collection gives only passing mention to troubles that she encountered in her new homeland: There is a copy of her wedding certificate to trumpeter Knight, the love of her life. They wed in 1962 in Connecticut. His profession is listed as "musician"; hers, "housework." By this time, she was already a household name throughout Latin America and had performed throughout the States, as well.

This collection also calls for a little more context, particularly along matters of race. Before the revolution -- and some say, after it, as well -- Cuba was a country rived by race. As an Afro-Cubana living in a country where even the mulatto dictator Fulgencio Batista was barred from joining the Yacht Club there, Cruz must have encountered racism. One of her first performing gigs was singing with a group of dancers called "Las Mulattas del Fuego" ("The Fiery Mulattas"). Then, too, there are pictures of dancers in the Tropicana, a famous nightclub, prancing with dolls in blackface.

Cruz embraced her blackness with gusto, often performing in afro wigs and dashiki caftans in the height of the '60s and '70s, always acknowledging her African roots in her music, and singing, "I'm so proud of being black / I'm so proud of my black people." (She also had fun with it, too, singing boastfully in her last album, "La Negra Tiene Tumbao," that is, "The Black Lady's Got Funk.") And at the same time, she transcended race, becoming, as her manager Omer Padillo-Sid described her, "the passport to Latin America," with Latinos of all colors adoring her with a fervor on par with fans of the Beatles, Elvis, Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz , a bilingual set that comprises all of the photographs and related pictures from “The Cruz Collection” that explores the talent, life and impressive career of the legendary Cuban born entertainer and singer Celia Cruz (1925–2003).

Forty-Seven works comprising thirty-two HD digital archival pigment ink prints mounted on particle board and protected with museum quality clear acrylic and fifteen HD digital archival pigment ink prints, set on tin matrix and mounted on museum quality particle board.

This compilation is unique and historical. Hails to the Salsa Queen!

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