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Cruz Controls the Beat : Though she's taking a turn on a telenovela, salsa and Cuban music will always be her passion,

September 18, 1997|YVETTE C. DOSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aretha Franklin on "Days of Our Lives"? Tina Turner on "All My Children"?

It's all but impossible to imagine our treasured divas plunging into the world of twisted love affairs and switched babies.

Leave it to Celia Cruz--the hands-down Queen of Salsa--to show why it makes perfect sense.

In the world of international pop music, an entertainer is an entertainer is an entertainer, which is why Cruz has taken her charisma and talent--exemplified by her ability to move hips and feet as the foremost female vocalist in the world of Cuban music--to a whole new medium.

She has been in Mexico recently taping episodes of the Spanish-language telenovela, or soap opera, "El Alma No Tiene Color" (The Soul Has No Color), in which she is a featured character battling racism among members of the Mexican upper class.

But Cruz isn't exactly reinventing herself--just dabbling. She says she isn't considering her role as the heart-of-gold nanny a major career shift.

"I liked the theme, so I agreed to get involved," Cruz says. "We can't deny that the problem of racism will never die, whether it's ethnic or racial discrimination."

Still, it's music that remains front and center for the Afro Cuban performer, who will be in concert Saturday at the House of Blues.

Cruz's singing career, which spans nearly 50 years and more than 70 albums, reads like the history of salsa music itself. The beginnings of her long career date to the late 1940s, when Cruz, who was born in the Santo Suarez district of Havana, began singing on a local radio show. Her major break came when she became lead singer for La Sonora Matancera, one of the hottest bands in Cuba. She recorded her first album with the group in 1951, and was well on her way to becoming the most recognizable Cuban singer in the world--both for her lyrical, scat-like improvisations as well as for her signature dance style, which combines mambo steps with rumba and sacred moves from the Afro Cuban religion, Santeria.

There have been many highlights in Cruz's career, which is studded with 20 gold albums. She won a Grammy in 1990 for "Ritmo En El Corazon," an album recorded with salsa and Latin jazz star Ray Barretto.

Most recently, she appears in "Yo Soy, Del Son a La Salsa" (I Am, From Cuban Son to Salsa), a 107-minute documentary produced by RMM Records founder Ralph Mercado that recounts the history of the lively musical form. And yet, her legendary status alongside tropical music heroes Tito Puente, Cachao and Eddie Palmieri, among others, doesn't preclude her from participating in the creation of innovative variations of the genre.

She helped introduce many mainstream listeners to salsa rhythms by recording a duet with former Talking Heads leader David Byrne ("Loco de Amor"). Recently, she ventured into the world of hip-hop as guest singer on Wyclef Jean's solo album, "The Carnival."

"I was told, 'The Fugees' Wyclef Jean wants you to sing on his remake of "Guantanamera," ' and I was delighted," Cruz says of the collaboration. "I insisted on singing in my style--forcefully, and in Spanish. When there's good music, language is the least of barriers."

It's that ability to be flexible that has kept Cruz--who has been called everything from the Queen of the Antilles to the Eternal Empress of Sass--going strong for decades.

"If there's one thing that's kept me going it's getting up on stage and performing, and seeing that the public still to this day receives me with warmth," she says. Plus, Cruz says, she has retained her energy all these years thanks to clean living. "I've never been one for parties," she says. "Why would I be? I am the party."

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BE THERE

Celia Cruz plays Saturday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., 9 p.m. $30. (213) 949-5100.

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