This month marks the ninth-year anniversary of the passing of multi-Grammy winning salsa legend, Celia Cruz. Some might not know she had multiple platinum and gold records, more than 100 worldwide recognitions, as well as a doctorate in music from Yale. And, for many, the late Cruz is more than just a performer, she is their inimitable queen.
Three years ago, her ex-manager, Omer Pardillo, who had worked alongside Cruz for 12 years, decided to keep her musical legacy alive by putting together an impassioned group to continue playing her music live. This group of talented Cuban-born musicians, residing in Miami, are aptly named the Celia Cruz All Stars.
“Celia always wanted for her music and legacy to stay alive for future generations,” says Pardillo, who is also the keeper of her estate and founder of the Celia Cruz Foundation, which offers financial aid to Latino students who wish to study music. He says approximately 5 percent of the proceeds from Celia Cruz All Stars goes to the Foundation.
The 11 members of Celia Cruz All Stars have a lot in common. Besides all of them calling Cuba their home country, as well as living and breathing salsa music, it is the first time these A-list musicians will be performing at the Festival Cubano – the largest annual Cuban festival in the U.S.
“I would like to bring to the stage the essence of Celia,” says Lenia Diaz in Spanish, the lead singer of Celia Cruz All Stars, with a deep voice eerily similar to the late singer. “I want to be spontaneous, natural, 100 percent Cuban.”
The 36-year-old Diaz left Cuba at 19, with some dance education from La Escuela Nacional de Variedades, and now resides in Miami where she makes a living singing. She says she just started singing with the All Stars a little more than a month ago, and she’s more than elated.
“When I think of Celia Cruz, I think of happiness, music, goodness, friendship, and Cuba,” she says with a palpable certainty, because these are the elements of her soul. “For me, Celia Cruz in one word is Cuba. I am Cuban.”
Diaz recalls that listening to Cruz was prohibited in Cuba, but as a girl she would religiously listen to her songs in a low volume.
“The more they prohibited her music, the more I wanted to listen to it,” says Diaz with Cruz’ joie de vivre. “It is an honor to be able to sing her songs…Omer Pardillo has given me a phenomenal opportunity.”
The group’s musical director, Braily Ramos, says he had the privilege to have worked with Cruz while she was alive whenever she was in Miami.
“To me it’s a rich feeling to form this band,” says the lively 35-year-old in Spanish. “We are all keeping Celia’s music alive…Before everything she is our queen…she’s an enchanting woman in all aspects from character to musician to person…”
Ramos says he looked around for the perfect singer to sing Cruz’s songs for a long time, but that changes when he met Diaz.
“When I saw her,” I said ‘That’s her,’” says Ramos. “She is a young lady with a lot of talent, and she knows Celia’s music deeply.”
Although Ramos says he likes to try to be innovative with the band, he also wants to maintain Cruz’ essence.
“We dance a lot, and have a lot of interaction with the public,” he says. “We all have to shine, because we are all, All Stars.”
Diaz and Ramos are both excited about their next venture, which should start in the next few months. It is a musical about Celia’s life through the eyes of Pardillo, her right-hand man.
In the meantime, Diaz is excited to perform in her first Festival Cubano in Chicago.
“I hope it won’t be my last,” says Diaz, whose favorite songs are “Carnaval” and “Usted abuso.” “I know that this weekend Celia will be with me, supporting me.”