Review: Celina Gonzales Royal Festival Hall: Cuba's diva rocks them in the aisles

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The Independent Online
SIX MONTHS shy of her 70th birthday, Celina Gonzalez is the hot rockin' mama of Cuban country, a diva who had her first hit, the timeless "Santa Barbara", 50 years ago and who arrives on our windswept shores trailing international awards.

She has only played here three times since 1986, and this show heralds the release of Desde la Habana te Traigo, her first album in 10 years. That's not to say she hasn't been busy - she's fitted in performances with a cast of thousands, including the renowned Oscar D'Leon and Ry Cooder's heroes, Company Segundo.

But Gonzalez, born in the remote village of Matanzas, where there were no such things as televisions, cinemas, schools or even doctors, preserves a certain disdain for the glitz of showbiz and a fiery Latin temper; when RCA Victor kept bugging her to sign with them, she barked, "Aren't you the label with the little doggie as a logo? Well, you can take that dog, cook it up and eat it."

Gonzalez's voice is a grainy one, embattled with experience; and she uses it to tell stories of the peasant life she knew. Nevertheless, this was a party night and they're tangoing in the aisles on the way in. Many songs came from the CD, which is a representation of Girl Power that knocks Geri Halliwell into a pair of fishnets. So we had the heady "A la Reine del Mar", dedicated to the Yoruba sea goddess, and "El Rey del Mundo", a mariachi strut that, though you'd never guess it, is inspired by Chango, mythical warrior queen of thunder and a woman who clearly knows how to have a good time.

The deeply romantic "Yo Soy tu Amigo" serenades the lover with the promise of friendship; "Cita en el Platanal", meanwhile, is a sexy little samba set in a banana grove, which young lovers traditionally find the most inspiring place for illicit trysts.

A tiny woman of Piaf-like proportions, Gonzalez performs amid a sea of testosterone, flanked by her six- strong band of swarthy caballeros; to her left is her son, and on congos her gangly grandson, from whose shoulder she at one point absently brushes lint. The music they play is wild and organic, but it's the diva's voice that carries the show. Last night, it transported rain-soaked Londoners to the steaming streets of a fiesta on the Gulf of Mexico. Not everyone can do this.