Celia Cruz at the Festival in Montreux, Switzerland in July, 2001. (Photo by Lionel FLUSIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Legendary singer Celia Cruz, who died ten years ago today, was one of Cuba's brightest stars, known for her spicy salsa music and for a sweet buzzword: "Azúcar!" Spanish for “sugar,” the word was what she often shouted to kick off a show. It was the punch line to a joke about Cuban coffee being served sweet, but perhaps it also harked back to Cruz's earliest days as a performer.
Growing up in Cuba in the 1930s, Cruz was urged in very different directions by her various family members. Her father wanted to see her finish her education and become a teacher. Her aunt, meanwhile, knew musical talent when she heard it and encouraged her niece to pursue a singing career. When one of Cruz's teachers noted that she could make a lot more money with her voice than as a teacher, her career path was clear.
But even in the more lucrative music profession, Cruz's early wages weren't enough to live on. She performed in – and won – singing competitions around Havana, but more often than not her prize was not money. It was cake.
These sweet beginnings led to a savory career as the Queen of Salsa. Though Cruz relocated to New Jersey after Fidel Castro took power, she retained her deep devotion to Cuba and its music. With dozens of albums to her credit, as well as seven Grammy Awards, Cruz reigned supreme. Even today, a decade after her death, her records are still a treat. We're sampling a few of our favorites today.
Guantanamera – a favorite patriotic tune in Cuba.
Quimbara – a performance with frequent partner Tito Puente.
Oye Como Va – a cover of the Tito Puente song made famous by Santana.
La Negra Tiene Tumbao – Hear Cruz shout "Azúcar!" in the title track from a Grammy-winning album.
Written by Linnea Crowther