October 21st is a double-special day for Salsa music lovers. We commemorate the birthday anniversary of Salsa Queen Celia Cruz. Additionally, we also commemorate one of the favorite days for Ismael Rivera.
This day is also when Panamanians make a pilgrimage to see the Cristo Negro (Black Christ), in the small town of Portobelo, Panama. Puerto Rican salsa singer Ismael Rivera worshiped the “Cristo Negro“, having gone to Panama to do the 53 miles pilgrimage from Panama City to Portobelo. So I’ll share a few things about both.
But before I go there, here’s a YouTube song of Ismael Rivera and Celia Cruz performing “Cucala” together. Ismael Rivera recorded the song with Cortijo y su Combo, and Celia Cruz recorded it later with Johnny Pacheco.
Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa
Celia Cruz was, and continues to be, unique among Latin music artists. Her long and illustrious career, which started at a very young age in Cuba, is well documented. She quickly rose to fame, and remained as a top performer in Latin music for many years. Being able to sustain that level of success through so many years is not an easy accomplishment.
Its hard to pick my favorite Celia Cruz recording. To begin, there are so many of them to consider. Many of them came out before I was listening to Salsa music. And although I have now listened to many of Celia’s earlier recordings, I’m still more fond to the ones she released when I started following Salsa more intensely.
With that disclaimer said, I think of 3 recordings that I like best of Celia Cruz. The first 2 recordings with Johnny Pacheco, and the first recording with Willie Colon. You have to add to that list “Bemba Colorá” and Isadora, which she performed with the Fania All Stars. I’ll get into the details of these recordings in the next blog, because I want to shift to the topic of Ismael Rivera before this blog becomes too long.
Ismael Rivera and His Spirituality
El Sonero Mayor Ismael Rivera was devoted to the Cristo Negro. I don’t know that Maelo was a religious man in the typical way, but he was a believer. I recently saw a video of a performance he did for TV in Puerto Rico, and while he talked to the program host about a new song he was working on, he made the cross sign, sort of asking the higher power for the song to do well. So Ismael had his own way, but he was all into it.
There are two songs that Ismael Rivera dedicated to the Black Christ
- El Nazareno – from the 1974 album “Traigo de Todo“, and which became a huge hit, one of the biggest hits in his career.
2. El Mesías – from the 1977 album “De Todas Maneras Rosas“, a song in rhythm of Puerto Rican “bomba“, that although not widely popular, is a very good song.
It would seem like including these songs in the recordings made the albums successful, not necessarily by the popularity of the songs, but just because of the connection with the miraculous higher power of the Cristo Negro. Both of these albums did very well. Of course, many other Ismael albums did well also.
In these songs, Ismael Rivera talks extensively about the pilgrimage that today, October 21st, is celebrated in Panama, and which brings humility and faith to so many.
Celia Cruz and Ismael Rivera are two of our most glorious stars, and today I want to remember both of them.