Before there was a musical phenomenon known as salsa, there was Celia Cruz, the dynamic Cuban singer who is generally referred to as the queen of salsa. The Havana native made a splash in her native city in the '50s and continued her rise after emigrating to New York after the Cuban revolution in 1959. Today, she's one of the world's most beloved singers, regardless of musical genre.
Cruz, who is stopping off at the Ventura Theatre on Saturday along with Yari Mori's band, spoke last week from Miami during a brief stop before heading off to Peru. Earlier, she had been to Japan, where salsa has recently become a sensation. The popularity of salsa internationally has made her a performer in demand, and she has been on tour since January. The traveling life suits her fine, apart from a fear of flying. It's the price you pay for a life of royalty.
Cruz was ready for her crown by the time salsa came into being. "Salsa was a name given to Cuban music in the '60s in New York," she said, through a translator. "At that time, a lot of Cuban orchestras were playing, and they gave it that name as a kind of commercial name. In general, it's called Cuban music, but there were different rhythms, like the rumba, guaguanco, cha-cha-cha, son. Today all those rhythms together are called salsa."
By now, Cruz, who combines bold tonal control, passionate intensity and improvisational flair, has become synonymous with salsa, and with Cuban musical culture. She has recorded nearly 75 records and has garnered her fair share of accolades, including a Grammy and a National Medal of Arts, presented by Bill Clinton in 1994. She was an obvious choice for an appearance in the film version of Oscar Hijuelos' novel "Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," alongside mambo king Tito Puente. Her work with Puente dates back to the '50s, while she was still in Cuba.
She also worked with former Talking Head David Byrne, whose fascination with salsa and other Latin music resulted in his own salsa-flavored projects, which in turn helped spread the genre to uninitiated audiences. Cruz sang "Loco de Amor" in duet with Byrne for the Jonathan Demme film "Something Wild." "It was a very nice experience," Cruz said of singing with Byrne. "Even though I don't speak English and he doesn't speak Spanish, we worked beautifully together."
Music has been a part of her life from childhood, but her musical career came about as something of a surprise. She was studying to be a teacher when a cousin encouraged her to pursue music. One of 14 children, Cruz explained that she used to sing to put her brothers to sleep, "and people used to come to the door when they would hear my voice. My cousin noticed that I had some talent." She sang a tango on a local radio program and won a prize. A career was born.
Salsa has been carving out an ever-larger and more multiracial audience in recent years, enhanced by the popularity of salsa dancing in clubs. However vogue it may seem now, though, the music is part of a long tradition out of Cuba, and Cruz is a veteran whose time has come and gone and now come again. "It comes natural for me, because it's the same music I've been doing since the beginning. It just has a different name now."
Having lighted the stage for over four decades, Cruz might want to rest on her laurels or just go through the motions. But to hear Cruz explain it, her passion for music is undiminished.
"I have always felt the same way about music, very deep. Every time I come on stage, I feel like it's the first time that I've sung. I always sing with the same spirit and feeling."
* Celia Cruz will perform at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St. in Ventura. Tickets are $23.50; 648-1888.