Celina Gonzalez, the singer known as Cuban music’s country queen, has died. Gonzalez passed away in Havana yesterday (Feb. 4), according to a statement from the Cuban Music Institute. The Latin Grammy-nominated artist was 85 years old.
The powerfully-voiced Gonzalez rose to popularity with her husband, guitarist Reutilio Domínguez. Together they were dedicated to the preservation of guajira music, the Spanish-influenced acoustic Cuban country genre whose poetic lyrics are inspired by rural life. Gonzalez also brought an Afro-Cuban sound to her music, She is probably best known for her song “Santa Barbara” (Also called “Que Viva Chango”), a tribute to the popular Afro-Cuban warrior god of fire and patron of percussion, whose Catholic alter-ego is St. Barbara. The song was later recorded by Celia Cruz.
Gonzalez’s version was featured on Que Viva Chango!, a 1993 compilation of music by the artist on the New York label Qbadisc, which brought some attention in the U.S. to the singer, who lived in Cuba her whole life.
“She was the greatest Cuban voice that U.S. audiences never got to hear,” said Qbadisc founder and Cuban music historian Ned Sublette after hearing the news of her death.
Born in Matanzas, Gonzalez grew up in Santiago de Cuba, the eastern city known both as a cradle of the folk ballad on the island and for its strong Afro-Cuban culture. She moved with her husband to Havana to further their career. The duo appeared in the 1950 film Rincón Criollo, together with other popular artists including Trio Los Panchos and Celia Cruz.
In later years, Gonzlaez performed as a soloist, and then with her son, reprising songs from the repertoire she had recorded with her husband. The album, 50 años…Como una Reina, was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the best traditional tropical album category in 2001. She won Cuba’s National Music Prize in 2002.