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Cuban Music Lesson: Celina Gonzalez

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

The problem with working with your spouse is…well…working with your spouse. It’s not that you don’t love each other or anything, it’s just that you have to spend ALL your time together. Add to that working in the arts, and the problems escalate. Mainly because artists are crazy. Usually, these collaborations end with lots of anger and hatred, (check out Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”). Occasionally, the couple works so well together that they create legendary music without killing each other. Such was the collaboration of Celina Gonzalez and her husband Reutillo Dominguez.

Celina was born in Matanzas in 1929. She grew up at a time when Cuban music was really coming into its own. The simple music of the guajiros (country folk) and the descendants of African slaves, had morphed into the sophisticated big band sound of the 30’s and 40’s. Celina’s first love was the aforementioned guajiro music of her childhood in rural Matanzas. This is based on the decima system, which is a standard rhyme scheme with a repeating chorus. These lyrics are largely improvised, like a rap battle but without people going, “Yeah, yeah, check one, check two, yo, yo.” When she was 16, she met Reutillo in Santiago. He was a songwriter and bandleader, and Celina became his band’s lead singer. Then they started getting it on. This was a time when no one cared about a guy in his twenties having sex with a 16 year old…not that we here at Tu Vez advocate that kind of thing. Celina and Reutillo got married, and began a 40 year career together.

They recorded many albums and had several hits. Their most famous songs were “Santa Barbara (¡Que Viva Chango!)” and “Yo Soy El Punto Cubano”. “Santa Barbara” was covered by everyone from Celia Cruz to Albita Rodriguez. It’s a song celebrating the Yoruba god of thunder, Chango. I’ve seen a room full of drunk Cubans waving white handkerchiefs in the air, (what you do to call Chango), and singing along with this song. Chango didn’t show up though…at least I didn’t see him. In 1971, Reutillo died and Celina had to carry on alone. A few years ago, she was nominated for a Latin Grammy and she’s won several awards in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. Today, she is considered a national treasure in Cuba. I guess Chango is one her side after all.

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