Celina González Zamora (March 16, 1929, Jovellanos, Matanzas – February 4, 2015, Havana) was one of Cuba’s most beloved and important singer-songwriters, though she was not so well known in the US, perhaps due to the fact that she remained throughout her career in Cuba. González built her reputation as a specialist in “música campesina” which is the traditional acoustic folkloric music of the Cuban agricultural countryside. She is probably most famous for co-authoring “A Santa Bárbara” (aka “¡Qué Viva Chango!”) with her husband and singing partner, Reutilio Domínguez. While her original recording of the tune was a hit in the 1950s and ‘60s, it is Celia Cruz’s 1968 version that perhaps found the most international success. Several other songs written and/or performed by Celina and Reutilio are internationally known as well, for example “Yo Soy El Punto Cubano” and “Pedacito De Mi Vida.”
Born into rural poverty on the La Luisa farm near the hamlet of Jovellanos in the province of Matanzas, Celina González moved at the age of four with her family to the province of Santiago de Cuba where her father was seeking better opportunity and economic prospects. Her childhood home in Santiago was always like a guateque (a traditional campesino fiesta of song); reportedly her parents sang peasant tunes with beautiful voices and two siblings accompanied them on the tres and the laúd (Cuban lute) respectively. Ever since she was little, the equally intelligent and beautiful Celina González Zamora always had a clear, powerful and rhythmic voice and was attracted to the Afro-Cuban religion known as La Regla de Ocha, more commonly referred to as Santería. In 1944 the 15-year-old Celina met Reutilio Domínguez Terrero, a handsome, talented guitarist and harmony singer (he was a “voz segundo” like Compay Segundo) from a small rural batéy (sugar plantation company town) in Guantánamo who was eight years her senior and would soon become her husband. The two were immediately attracted to each other upon meeting at a guateque that was being thrown in Reutilio’s honor at the Campo Amor Theater in Guantánamo. Celina returned to Santiago with Reutilio in tow and the two worked up a routine singing together and composing songs, forming the soon-to-be famous duo of Celina and Reutilio and going public in 1947. According to Celina, one night the following year the Catholic Virgin of Santa Barbara appeared to her in a vision, a seminal event marking her destiny forever. Santa Bárbara is known in Cuba as being syncretized with the Yoruba orisha (deity) Changó, a great warrior king, “owner of fire, thunder, lightning and joyful drums.” In her visitation with Changó, the orisha assured Celina she would find artistic success if she dedicated a song of praise to Santa Bárbara/Changó; the rest, as they say, is history. A decade later Celina was officially initiated into Santería, the result being that the divination oracle of ifá deemed her a “daughter” of the orisha Yemayá (syncretized as the Virgin of Regla), mistress of the sea and everything that exists in it, where the deity Olokún lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Her guardian saint Yemayá/La Virgin de Regla would feature in several of Celina y Reutilio’s songs over the years, as would many other Yoruba gods.
The duo’s career advanced when they were discovered by fellow santiaguero Ñico Saquito (Benito Antonio Fernández Ortiz), the famous singer-songwriter and leader of Los Guaracheros de Oriente. He heard Celina and Reutilio performing on the Atalaya Campesina radio program of the Cadena Oriental de Radio station in Santiago de Cuba and felt they had a lot of potential. The pair traveled with Ñico to Havana where he not only helped them obtain gigs and radio performances but also taught them, in his own particular way, how to play the son, guaracha and guaguancó, styles that were more popular with urban audiences in the big city. Celina and Reutilio recorded many singles and several LPs for Havana labels Suaritos and Puchito as well as the New York-based labels Ansonia and Spanoramic, traveling several times to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and New York where they became popular. They also shared the stage with massively popular singers like like Benny Moré and Barbarito Díez and participated in the Cuban films Rincón Criollo and Bella la Salvaje with the likes of Blanquita Amaro, Celia Cruz, Olga & Tony and their original mentor, Ñico Saquito. Their reputation spread far and wide, and they became particularly beloved in Puerto Rico and South America.
In 1968 with his health in decline Reutilio decided to give up touring and public performance and he returned to his home town of Manuel Tames, passing away after a serious illness at the relatively young age of 51 on February 28, 1972. As far back as 1964 Celina and Reutilio were experiencing difficulties and the duo broke up for good once Reutilio retired. In the late 1960s Celina began her solo career and she would go on to gain more international recognition and fame singing solo voice backed by several bands including Conjunto Palmas y Cañas, Campo Alegre and Adalberto Álvarez y su Son. Celina had always been the lead voice in the duo with her husband so it was natural for her to break out on her own; over the next thirty years she recorded numerous albums and her work was anthologized and rereleased in the UK, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia. In 1981 she revisited the duet style of singing, this time inviting her son Lázaro Reutilio Domínguez to join her, with the aim of reviving the old repertoire and sonority of Celina y Reutilio while updating the sound to reflect current tastes. Their album 50 años como una reina (1999) was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2001. For Celina, the secret to her popularity during the years following her breakup with Reutilio was that she was always faithful to her country origins and her “people” from back home, never selling out to commercialization or diluting her traditional sound.
Certainly some of Celina González’s most iconic performances and classic duets with Reutilio are to be found on "Rezos Y Cantos Guajiros," originally released in 1965 and reissued in 1971 and again on CD in 1992. The title sums up the duo’s œuvre in a nutshell: Afro-Cuban praise music (rezos literally means “prayers”) and songs of the Cuban country peasants, the guajiros. If you are a fan of traditional acoustic guitars and lively regional “Cuban country” music in the vein of Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo, Grupo Sierra Maestra and the like, you will love this album. Unlike several other of their records, the sound quality on this Ansonia LP is fantastic; listening to these dozen classic cuts you feel like you’re right there in the room with Celina and Reutilio, transported back more than half a century to simpler times when there were no recording tricks and people could express themselves with authenticity and unvarnished feeling. There are many different rhythms on this recording, from the rural guajira, punto, le lo ley and son montuno to the Yoruba-based rezo afro and the more urban guaguancó and guaracha taught to Celia and Reutilio by Ñico Saquito. Lyrically, the compositions on this record cover everything from romance to economics, spirituality to partying and above all, heartfelt expressions of pride in Celina and Reutilio’s humble hillbilly origins. In their astounding diversity and range these genres and lyrical subjects represent the major strains of Cuban roots music: Africa and Spain, as well as the sacred and the profane, not to mention the joyful and sad emotions of el pueblo cubano. The version of their often-recorded hit “Yo Soy El Punto Cubano” is arguably the best and it never fails to raise goose bumps due to the duo’s uncanny harmonies and Reutilio’s chiming guitar. Reutilio’s talent as a guitarist was renowned; he could sound like two at once and sometimes played with his axe behind is back or with his teeth like a bluesman, anticipating the antics of Jimi Hendrix by decades, and his beautiful chords are all over this record. Other highlights include the catchy “El Baile Del Le Lo Lay,” the mournful lament “Tristeza Guajira” and “Quiero Matar El Dolor,” which was a later hit for Colombian salseros Michi Sarmiento y sus Bravos. Released initially as a handful of 78 and 45 RPM singles between 1956 and 1960, Ansonia’s "Rezos Y Cantos Guajiros" is undoubtedly one of the label’s most important Cuban records and has been lovingly remastered from the original tapes for today’s digital audience in a stunning reissue that will gain Celia and Reutilio a whole new legion of fans. The album certainly shines as a prized jewel in the crown of Celina Gonzalez’s many musical achievements, making it essential listening for anyone interested in the history of Caribbean and Latin music in general as well as Cuban cultural expression specifically. It also stands as a worthy testament to a pioneering and fiercely talented female singer born poor in the backwoods who thrived and became famous in a largely male-dominated urban industry, staying true to her rezos and cantos guajiros till the end.