Un Regalo del Alma

The last recording of Celia Cruz

By Peter Watrous
Published on LatinoLA: August 19, 2003

Un Regalo del Alma

What a strange miracle, coming as it does from beyond the grave. One of the great voices of the 20th century dies, and leaves behind "Regalo Del Alma," a nearly perfectly balanced goodbye that points to a ton of possibilities inherent in the Black Atlantic.

From the first tune, "Ella Tiene Fuego," a tune that floats over Brazilian percussion patterns to "Pa' La Cola" a piece suggesting New Orleans through Puerto Rico, the album is brimming with a joy that can only be found in the artistic products of the new world.

And it has to be said that the two producers of the album, Sergio George and Oscar Gomez have put together an album that's an incredible present to the memory of Celia. Virtually every tune hums with intelligence, and even better for a singer who, like most old- schoolers, judged her career in part by hits in the present tense, not in past successes. The album is loaded with a variety of hard-core radio singles, and it gives the album a real charge of pop power.

To generalize, Sergio George's half of the album rocks in the sort of New York, modern version of pop salsa, with lots of mixing between salsa and more electric, club sounding production, with acoustic guitars popping up once in a while. It's as if it were aimed at the international club market, from Thailand, through Europe to New York, and if that angers purists, it clearly didn't anger Cruz, who could appreciate that her music was being heard internationally. Not all George's tunes are that; one uses another Cuban exile, Alfredo de la Fe on violin, and there's plenty of modern salsa in the works.

The rest of the tracks bring together the team of Alain Perez on bass and Ivan Melon Gonzalez on piano, the duo who made Issac Delgado's late 90s band one of the best groups to ever walk Cuban soil. Perez has written a few tunes-"Jose Caridad" "La Nina De la Trenza Negra" that we'll be hearing for a long time, and his arrangements are perfect examples of Cuban pop made internationally acceptable. It's toned down timba, and it makes you wish that the world had been a more forgiving place, one that would have allowed a meeting of Delgado, his band, and Cruz.

That Cruz's voice isn't what it once was is an observation that's been true for some time. But somehow, that combined with the sheer pop pleasure of the album and the knowledge that she was dying while recording "Regalo Del Alma" makes the project even stronger. Cruz dedicated her time on earth to the enjoyment of life -- her trademark"azucar" is nothing more than a call to take in all of life's sweetness. And "Regalo Del Alma" is nothing but a call to soak up the riches around us, to not make excuses, to not let debilities slow one down.

The record breathes with a courage that makes you realize that the pop arena at one time had a seriousness to it that has completely vanished in the new century. Your audience was not to be treated with disrespect.

Cruz ends the album with a Spanish version of "I Will Survive," a tune put there as a goodbye to all of us who worshipped her presence. It's maudlin, and sentimental and absolutely emotional and perfect. She sings "In the hands of the conguero, in the feet of the dancer I will live" and she's right. The Cuban government tried to silence her, the free-floating racism of the United States demoted her talent, and yet as long as civilization exists, and it keeps technology alive, Cruz will survive.

She'll outlive juvenile governments and social stupidities. She'll outlive everyone reading this; she'll be around in 1000 years, proof that in a certain place, during a certain time, special people knew how to overcome mediocrity and evil, and to do it all with a swing that felt good, and was instructive, too.

About Peter Watrous:
Originally published at http://www.descarga.com/cgi-bin/db/archives/Review71

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