Celina Gonzalez: The woman who immortalized ‘Que Viva Chango’ passes away

  A star has fallen from the Cuban music firmament, as Celina Gonzalez, the queen of música güajira or Cuban country music, passed away in…

A star has fallen from the Cuban music firmament, as Celina Gonzalez, the queen of música güajira or Cuban country music, passed away in Havana at age 85.

The Cuban Music Institute confirmed the news Wednesday of the woman who along with Reutilio Dominguez immortalized the song “Que Viva Chango.” Celina was born in Jovellanos, Matanzas on March 16, 1929 but began her music career in Santiago de Cuba where she met Reutilio Domínguez at age 16. Reutilio was a skilled guitarist and second vocal who became her stage partner and husband.

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Their musical backgrounds were on Cuban country music styles like Punto, Decima and Montuno. But living in Santiago de Cuba, the musical absorption of Afro-Cuban religious influences into their work was inevitable. Mixing both cultural currents (white countryside music and Santería) probably was Celina’s greatest contribution to Cuban culture — a mix that in her time had never done before.

Still in Santiago, the duo met prominent Guaracha singer and songwriter Ñico Saquito from whom they incorporated Son and Guaracha rhythms. Saquito took them to try fortune in Havana in 1948, performing at national scale events in both radio and television.

Celina Gonzalez’s rise to fame

Celina y Reutilio quickly became the most important act in the “Musica Campesina” scene. They collaborated with some of the most important Latin musicians of the time including Trio Los Panchos, Benny Moré, and Celia Cruz. Their popularity spread beyond the Cuban shores. They were very successful in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

“Que Viva Chango!” and “Yo Soy el Punto Cubano” are two of the most famous songs Celina y Reutilio ever wrote. Their musical talents combined like catsup and mustard.

“You are the poetess so due the lyrics then I’ll do the music,” Celina commented in an interview on how they composed “Que Viva Chango!”

A frail Celina Gonzalez appears on stage in a tribute dedicated to her in 2010. (Corfecali/Flickr)

However, the duo dissolved in 1964. Reutilio returned to his birth town Guantanamo where he died in 1972 and Celina continued her career as a soloist touring Cuba, Latin America and Europe.

She joined her son Lázaro Reutilio Domínguez to bring back the duo repertoire in 1981. Her unmistakable potent clear voice became the quintessential of female Güajira singing, influencing singers like Albita Rodriguez and Eduardo Antonio who began their career singing Cuban country music.

Her voice was eclipsed by a cerebrovascular disease, which she dealt with for more than a decade. She suffered a stroke while visiting her family in Miami in 2000, which kept her hospitalized in the Jackson Memorial Hospital for more than a year. She later returned to the island but never performed on stage again. However, “50 Años…. Como Una Reina”, a record she had recorded with her son in 1999, was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the category of Best Traditional Tropical Album in 2001.

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As many Cuban artists, Celina didn’t escape politics. She was hardly criticized by many Cuban exiles for decades because she was one of the big stars that remained in the island after Castro took over the country in 1959. She and Reutilio actually made a version of “Que Viva Chango!” titled “Que Viva Fidel.”

But, what most agree on (in the island and elsewhere) is that she is the most recognizable voice of Cuban country music -not only as a female voice but of the genre as a whole. “She was the greatest Cuban voice that U.S. audiences never got to hear,” said Qbadisc founder and music historian Ned Sublette.

She was awarded with the Cuban National Music Prize in 2002 and the Golden Picasso medal by UNESCO just two years ago.