¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz Celia Cruz Selector  
Her Life
Her Music
Her Dressing Room
Salsa & Azúcar
The Salsa Music Scene: Latin New York in the 1960s and 1970s

When Celia Cruz arrived in New York at the end of 1961, she found a city full of Latino musicians. Many had been in New York for decades; others, like Tito Puente, were born in the city. The music scene was full of experimentation and the sharing of rhythms and traditions.

The Cuban son greatly influenced what became known as salsa. The son is based on a rhythmic pattern known as the clave, a three-two beat with syncopation. But there were many other elements: the Puerto Rican bomba and plena, the Dominican merengue, the Colombian cumbia, Brazilian music, blues, jazz, and rock and roll. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and other Latinos, together with North American musicians in the barrios, created this new sound.

Characterized by brash, up-front attacks by the trombone, lyrics talking about the realities of living on the margins, and sheer joy of irreverence, salsa came to exemplify the Latino 1970s counterculture. The music moved from big-band sounds and the glamour of the Palladium to the complexity and grittiness of the streets.

Walking Toward the Future

These shoes were custom-made for Celia Cruz by Mr. Nieto, a Mexico City shoemaker who created shoes for her for more than forty years. The flat, bottom surface camouflages the heel and makes it look as if she is about to take off and fly. Cruz’s career was about to experience the same takeoff as she became one of the central figures in Latin music.


Sabor literally means flavor. In Afro-Caribbean music there are many references to food, and gustatory terms to describe the way the music is performed—danced, sung, played. (Salsa, for example, means sauce.) Sabor refers to the mastery of the performance. To have sabor in music means knowing how to do something extremely well. Many believe that Celia Cruz was the embodiment of sabor.


¡Azúcar! was Celia Cruz’s battle cry. It literally means sugar. It was her way of energizing and injecting the music with that extra serving of sabor. It was also the way she made the music her own. Sugar is an essential agricultural product in Cuba’s history, directly linked both to the vibrant diversity of Cuban culture and to the violence of slavery. Celia Cruz’s throaty cry evoked those associations.

Performances, Performers and Composers

The golden era of salsa lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. During this time the best-known musicians came under the umbrella of one record label: Fania. Fania was formed in 1964 by Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and Italian American lawyer Jerry Masucci. They had the vision to market an urban sound that became a cultural trend, born in the streets of New York.

Many had argued that salsa was just rehashed Cuban son and rumba. The artists who signed with the Fania label proved that New York had forged a new Latin sound that was unique and that spoke to people in other Latin American cities, making salsa a Latin American musical movement as well.

Fania All Stars
By 1971, there were enough musicians and bands signed with Fania to form a superorchestra from the best musicians. Memorable performances by the Fania All Stars became classic recordings, and two major films by Leon Gast, Our Latin Thing (1972) and Salsa (1976), were produced by Fania.

A Woman among Men
Celia Cruz was often the only woman in the male-dominated world of Afro-Latin music, especially salsa. From her early days in Cuba as the female singer of the Sonora Matancera to her years as a singer with the orchestras of Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and the Fania All Stars, she was the only sonera. This is of particular importance, since a big part of being a salsa singer is the ability to improvise in the calland- response section of the song—an African musical tradition. Celia was brilliant at it, becoming the great sonera, or improviser.
Fania All Stars and Hommy
Celia Cruz started her salsa career with Fania as a result of performing in the famed Latin opera Hommy. Based on the rock opera Tommy, it was composed by pianist Larry Harlow, a Jewish New Yorker who was one of the first artists signed by Fania, and Puerto Rican musician, dancer, and composer Henny Alvarez. As a pianist, composer, and orchestra leader, Harlow recognized the potential of Cruz’s powerful voice and presence and signed her to play the role and be the voice of Gracia Divina (Divine Grace). The opera opened at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and had great success; the show, and Cruz, received rave reviews.

Celia and Tito
Celia Cruz met the great orchestra leader, composer, and master percussionist Tito Puente in Cuba in 1955. They connected again after she arrived in New York. When Cruz left the Sonora Matancera in 1965, she began a musical relationship with Puente that lasted until 1973. Although the Tico record label did not do enough promotion to make their joint venture profitable, it proved to be an important musical transition for Cruz into the U.S. market. They recorded some memorable numbers, including “Aquarius,” which brought Cruz closer to the new musical landscape then developing in New York City.

Celia and Johnny
Celia Cruz joined the Fania label in 1974, and her first album released there, Celia and Johnny, was with Johnny Pacheco. The Fania All Stars traveled around the world, giving concerts in Japan, Latin America, and Europe. One of the most memorable for Cruz was the concert played in Kinshasa in Zaire as part of the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Celia with Willie Colon
Celia Cruz had a highly successful musical relationship with Willie Colón, one of the most accomplished and important voices in salsa during the 1970s and 1980s. A Puerto Rican born in New York, Colón greatly influenced salsa by infusing it with Puerto Rican traditional music and Brazilian music. He was also instrumental in creating a signature salsa trombone style.

Performing with orange bata cubana
Celia Cruz adapted the traditional bata cubana to the U.S. stage. This bata, designed by Enrique Arteaga, is polyester satin trimmed with insertion lace and interwoven with orange ribbon. Miles of white scalloped lace edging trim the many layers of ruffles on the sleeves, skirt, and train. Cruz first wore it at Carnegie Hall and later at the Apollo Theater.

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