Celia Cruz, 1925-2003
“There’s no need to cry, ’cause life is a carnival, and it’s more beautiful to live singing.” That’s how Celia Cruz, the Guarachera de Cuba, lived—with her wide smile brimming and her sugar-tinged voice afloat. And that’s how fans remembered the 78-year-old, who passed away on July 16 of cancer, last Tuesday at a public wake at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue. Folks of all colors wearing Celia shirts waved Latin American flags, maracas, vintage album covers, photo collages, and even Christmas cards from the performer. As they waited in line for one last glimpse of the people’s diva, they belted out songs like “Yerberito Moderno” and “Bemba Colorá,” pausing only to shout “Azzzzzuuuucarrrrrrrr”—her trademark phrase.
“I saw her in Panama when I was eight, my dad took me,” said an admirer. “The last time I ran into her was at Orchard Beach.” Known for her simplicity, accessibility, and contagious joy, Cruz was like family to those who grew up listening to her records when she sang for La Sonora Matancera in the ’50s, and continued buying CDs when she rapped on La Negra Tiene Tumbao in the new millennium. Her Afro-Cuban rhythms on more than 70 albums filled generational gaps, broke down language barriers, and just made you want to move your feet. She kept up too, even in the custom-made platform shoes that matched her flamboyant stage clothes. At the funeral home she was still styling, wearing a white dress with shiny lace trim, a platinum wig, bright red lips, fake lashes, and plenty of gold jewelry.
Her final offering, Regalo del Alma, was recorded while Cruz was ill. She dedicated it in part to her eternal love, husband Pedro Knight, who was always by her side. Her “little cotton-ball head,” as she called him, helped her make beautiful music—a job that now belongs to longtime collaborator Tito Puente, as the Queen of Salsa joins the King of Mambo for one eternal jam session. You can almost hear that butterscotch voice coupled with his inimitable conga beat up above. —Grace Bastidas
Mars Has Guitars
I left after midnight, during the bass solo. Not because it wasn’t Flea—who joined Mars Volta on their recent De-Loused in the Comatorium—pulling the strings, but because bass freak-outs betray prog rock’s cardinal cliché: the idea that surfaces hide truth. In clawing out deep meaning concerning hobbits, spaceships, and munchies, prog bands from Rush to Euro-metal champs Opeth actually become all surface, detaching from a pop-cult reality that dictates three-minute songs and faith in something other than teen fantasy novels. That is why we love them. Mars Volta—made up of the great ’90s punk At the Drive-In’s two most talented members, singer Cedric Bixler Zavala and songwriter-guitarist Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez, both El Paso natives, with talented recruits on drums, keyboard, effects processor, and, of course, bass—say the soaring, tumultuous De-Loused was “inspired by the life and times of Julio Venegas,” a drug-addicted friend who committed suicide in 1996. Heavy.
But the pomp translated perfectly to Irving Plaza’s stage. Rodriguez-Lopez called up Jimi Hendrix fronting the MC5, swinging his guitar over his left shoulder and around his back, then grabbing a handful of rip chords, or doling out serpentine leads. Muscular, shirtless drummer Jon Theodore flexed his sinewy beats into hard-contoured relief. Zavala wailed nonsense with the same abandon that defined At the Drive-In, but instead of paranoia, he projected an almost spiritual expansiveness, pitched on high. During a mid-album four-song cycle stretched to a half-hour, he tossed his mic stand offstage, did a split, and surfed over the seizing, ebbing, and exploding surfaces below. Suicide-inspired uplift—what a concept. —Nick Catucci
“We’re the New Deal and we’re from Canada!” fibbed Marc Brownstein, who is really in Sucker Punch and from Santa Cruz. But that was just the bass-meister’s haimish way of introducing the trio that had just replaced his own quartet onstage, one member at a time. Which wasn’t that difficult, since the two entities share Jamie Shields, the imperturbable keyboardist who virtually invented the sort of improv-rock-meets-dance-music strategy the bands epitomize. Sucker Punch and the New Deal were the de facto headliners of the forward-thinking Zen Livetronica Festival at the vintage-keyboard-studded confines of Webster Hall on July 20, where 10 acts performed 20 sets in four rooms over seven hours. A kind of schizoid bliss eventually settled in as the bands cut and dubbed as hard as the DJs, and vice versa.
By the time it was over, though, the bands had definitely prevailed. In addition to Brownstein and Shields, Sucker Punch included keyboardist Aron Magner, from Brownstein’s main group, the Disco Biscuits, and drummer Zach Velmer of Sound Tribe Sector 9. Their mostly improvised set alternated hardcore beats, spacey electronica, and the sort of dark, free-flowing drama found in the best imp rockers. A thoroughly insider-baseball cover of the Warwick Bassmonkey Mix of trance act Hallucinogen’s “Solstice” may have been a first in studio-stage crossover history. And while the New Deal laid down its usual oceanic dance-music encyclopedia, the bands Q and Brothers Past hung closer to traditional song structures.
As for the DJs, sadly, except for Ming + FS, who picked up guitars during their refreshingly impolite and often abrasive set (“War Pigs”!), they were mostly ignored. Only a couple of professional dancers and a few girls with hula hoops stepped out to DJ Keoki’s set. Either the twain weren’t meeting or the crowd already made up its collective mind. —Richard Gehr