Sweet Belle of Success

It's difficult to imagine Hialeah families piling onto Miami Beach-bound buses to catch their first ever museum show. But when the call comes from the revered queen of salsa, they heed.

"¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz," at the Bass Museum of Art, explores the iconic Cuban singer's career and her influence on music and culture.

Since opening in May, the traveling exhibit, organized by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has drawn throngs.

On a recent weekday morning, a steady flow of visitors at the Bass wove through the photo panels, costumes, personal documents, and rare film footage offering intriguing snapshots into Cruz's life. Throughout the gallery housing the popular exhibit, La Guarachera de Cuba's booming pipes pierced the air.

Strangers stood in front of the displays, sharing memories of their first Celia concert, their favorite Celia songs, her larger-than-life persona, and her outlandish style.

For me, Cruz's early album covers evoked recollections of growing up in Missouri during the Sixties, when my parents would play her records over and over again as part of what seemed a Saturday-night ritual. It was as if Celia's plaintive warbling was the only thing that made them feel rooted and closer to home.

During a musical career spanning five decades, Cruz enjoyed such rapport with her audiences that she became a deeply beloved figure.

Not surprisingly, Marvette Perez, the Smithsonian's curator of Latino history, easily bottles the singer's magnetic presence in this show. It unfolds chronologically with several creased sepia pictures of Cruz as a baby, as a schoolgirl, and as a teen posing with her family in the Santos Suarez neighborhood of Havana, where she was born in 1925.

Nearby, a photo panel and text describe how in 1947 Cruz won her first singing contest by belting out "Nostalgias," a tango, on Havana radio station Radio García-Serra's amateur show, Hora del Te.

Her big break came in the summer of 1950, when she was chosen to replace Myrta Sylva, lead vocalist with Sonora Matancera, then Cuba's premier orchestra. Cruz performed with the group through 1965, recording 185 songs along the way.

A video display shows rare footage from Cuban television during the Fifties in which Sonora Matancera and Cruz perform several hits, including "Burundanga," "El Yerbero Moderno," "Juancito Trucupey," and "Ye Ye Oh Oh Guama," a tribute to the Afro-Cuban goddess Ochun. In the film montage, Cruz appears slim and sparrowlike, but the emotional intensity of her voice comes across clearly.

Another display houses a blue bata Cubana — a rumba dress the singer wore during the period — and Pedro Knight's trumpet. Knight played lead trumpet with Sonora Matancera and later married Cruz in 1962, two years after they moved to the United States.

The show jumps to the late Fifties, when Cruz and the orchestra took Havana's cabarets by storm, and features memorabilia from the legendary Tropicana nightclub. A program from a 1957 New Year's Eve performance shows photos of Celia with Nat King Cole and Carmen Miranda.

It was in the elaborately produced, sizzling musical revues such as Mayombe, Tambo, and Carnaval Carioca at the Tropicana that Cruz first flexed her over-the-top aesthetic.

"¡Azúcar!" continues with artifacts from the singer's early years in exile, including a handful of albums recorded in Mexico and a poster for Amorcito Corazón, her first feature film. Copies of her marriage license and a telegram informing Cruz of her mother's death in Cuba — both from 1962 — also appear in this section.

The exhibit transitions to an enclosed nook re-creating one of the salsa star's dressing rooms. A vanity table is topped by a video screen on which Cruz is seen applying makeup and getting massaged while preparing for shows.

Whenever she traveled, Cruz regularly packed her own coffee cups and wine glasses, along with a pantheon of Cuban dashboard saints, transforming her dressing rooms into cozy, homelike spaces. This display also features her sunglasses, wigs, a monogrammed bathrobe, a makeup kit, a faux leopard skin stool, and a pair of paintings of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. One of the singer's eye-popping gowns — a coral-hue feathered number with a beaded collar and matching turban by Mexican designer Willy Mena — rounds out the display.

Across from it a vitrine shows several of Cruz's stupendous one-of-a-kind shoes. For 40 years she had the same designer in Mexico City create the dazzling confections, which included her signature camouflage heels. The singer wore them to give the impression she was about to become airborne while strutting across the stage. One of the splashier pairs here are silver peep-toes outlined in rhinestones and sporting aluminum swan heels.

Some of the other costumes on exhibit include a blue beaded lace gown Cruz wore during the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony in 2002, and the light gray cashmere dress designed by Narciso Rodriguez she donned during her last public appearance, a tribute concert for the singer broadcast on Telemundo in 2003.

At the rear of the gallery, Celia's collaborations with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars — an ensemble of the leading salsa performers of the time — receive wide play.

Cruz was one of the few women to crack into the male-dominated scene of salsa music that emerged from New York's Latin barrios during the Sixties and Seventies. She eventually starred in the salsa opera Hommy at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

A 10-minute video showcases Cruz during the height of salsa's golden age, performing "Bemba Colora," "Quimbara," and "Cucala" with her ecstatic Fania cohorts.

Throughout her career, Cruz was able to marry her devastatingly powerful voice, flamboyant plumage, boundless energy, and ability to change with the times to attract young fans while still pleasing the old.

One of her funkiest dresses — a peacock-patterned quilted caftan — and a Cleopatra Jones-style Afro wig sit side by side with Johnny Pacheco's flute and Tito Puente's graffiti-scrawled timbales, not far from many of the awards Cruz received for turning salsa on its head.

By the Eighties, Celia's fame was ironclad. She had conquered audiences across the globe, headlined a sold-out Madison Square Garden concert televised worldwide — following which the New York Times called her "one of the greatest singers in the world" — and had even earned an honorary doctorate from Yale.

Several gold albums, her two Grammys, and the Presidential Medal of the Arts, awarded to Cruz by President Clinton in 1994, reflect her staggering musical legacy and boundary-transcending charm.

"¡Azúcar!" — Spanish for "Sugar!" — was Celia's battle cry. Like ants drawn to sweetness, those who loved her rallied around her.

On a video clip near the exit, Spanish television talk show host Cristina Saralegui relates how after a taping, Celia waded out into a mob of adoring fans, threw her arms up in the air, and shrieked, "Tócame! Tócame! Tócame!" ("Touch me! Touch me! Touch me!") Left speechless, Saralegui asked Cruz why. The singer responded that she wanted her fans to know she was real.

She was the real deal, all right, and at the Bass her artistry prevails. "¡Azúcar!" reminds audiences why we might never see her like again.