Celia Cruz ‘Cuba’s Queen of Song (1950-1965)’ 2CD (Nascente) 5/5

Arguably the greatest female singer in Latin music history and certainly one of its most influential and charismatic alongside Carmen Miranda, Celia Cruz’s career spanned several decades which has made any attempt at an anthology thus far a near impossible task. However, the genius of this new compilation is to focus on the early part of her career and within that be as comprehensive as possible, packing in fifty-six songs on two CDs that are barely under the eighty-minute mark. This represents great value for the listener, but there is absolutely no skimping on quality since these recordings were on the Seeco label and include recordings made in Cuba, Mexico and the United States where Cruz resided from the mid-1960s until her death in the noughties. The first side chronicles her early years as lead vocalist with La Sonora Matancera when she won several singing competitions and had graduated as a teacher. Cruz decided, however, to concentrate on a singing career and on improving her technique. When she took over as lead of the then already famous Cuban group, there was some initial resistance, but thankfully from our perspective Cruz proved the doubters wrong and never looked back. Among a host of stunning numbers, the likes of ‘Melao de caña’, ‘Caramelos’ and ‘Yerbero moderna’ stand out, but there are some many classic tunes here which have been covered endlessly by future generations of singers. Cruz perfected a style of Cuban music referred to as guaracha, which was an up-tempo form of the traditional son. This did not mean, though, that she could not adapt to other styles. For a period during the 1950s Celia Cruz devoted a series of albums to Afro-Cuban folkloric music and this style is illustrated on the anthology by ‘Chango’. The second CD concentrates on the post-1960 era and during the mid-1960s Cruz cut two terrific mambo-inspired albums of which the cream cuts are included here such as the wonderful ‘Con mucho cachet’ and a take on the Jewish pop song ‘Hava nageela’. As early as 1962 she had settled in New York after a few years in Mexico, married her long-time trumpeter and compatriot Frederick Knight, left Sonora and embarked upon a solo career that would make her far more famous than she had ever been as one part of a group. By 1965 Celia had left Seeco and a year later started recording for another specialist Latin label Tico and this would be the beginning of a new partnership that would last until her passing with the great bandleader Tito Puente. An ideal place, perhaps, to start a second volume of the anthology. The superb inner liner notes by DJ Pablo Iglesias with graphics are exemplary and, in addition to full discographical details and almost a dozen original album covers, there are photos of Celia in her youth. This compilation may come at an unbeatable bargain price, but in reality the music is both priceless and timeless.

Tim Stenhouse