Cespedes Celebrates Cruz

One diva, Bobi Cespeces, pays tribute to another, Celis Cruz, at two SFJAZZ shows in March.


Bobi Cespedes

Photo courtesy of Bobi Cespedes

As a child growing up in the El Cotorro barrio of Havana, Gladys 'Bobi' Cespedes would often dance and sing along whenever she heard the majestic voice of Cuban grand diva Celia Cruz on the radio. Cruz frequently strung her lyrics together in such a rapid-fire manner that Cespedes was unable to catch them all. She instead filled the gaps with words of her own invention.

Cespedes, whose husky contralto tones have often been likened to those of the late Queen of Latin Music, had mixed feelings when the SFJAZZ Center asked her more than a year ago to do a concert of songs that had been popularized by Cruz.

'It never occurred to me to sing her songs,"Cespedes said while sitting in the kitchen of her hillside East Oakland home that doubles as a bilingual day care center. Behind her, through the windows of her front door, was a panoramic view of San Francisco and the bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Mateo Bridge.

"I felt you don't kinda do that." she added. "You wait till the person passes on and then you remember them by singing their songs. It's taken me a year to prepare because, of course, it's not my repertoire. It's hers."


Born 70 years ago in Jacomino, Cuba, the youngest of 14 children, Cepedes came to New York City on a student visa in June 1959. She was joined by her mother. The move, she said, had nothing to do with Fidel Castro's takeover of the island nation six months earlier.

"When Castro became a communist, I became an alien, a green-card holder,"said the singer, an Oakland resident for the past 30 years. "That's what I am right now, trying to become a citizen."

"I want to be there, but I want to be here as well," she said of her homeland, which she has visited 'many times,' most recently two years ago.

Cespedes maintains her Afro-Cuban cultural heritage as a priestess of the Yoruba-Lukumi faith, a variant on the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa, and as a vocalist. She and her nephew, multi-instrumentalist Guillermo Cespedes, formed a band in the early '80s called Conjunto Cespedes that recorded three albums and toured the United States, Europe, and Australia before disbanding a dozen years back. She also toured with Planet Drum and Bembe Orisha, two bands led by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

The singer is known to family, friends, and fans as 'Bobi,' a nickname given to her by one of her brothers when she was a child.

"Bobi in Lukumi, the language of the Orisha traditionalists of Cuba, means plump,'"she explains, spreading her fingers and pressing them to her cheeks. "You know how babies are soft and round and cuddly. That's what bobi means."

Bobi Cespedes and her six-piece band will perform a tribute to Celia Cruz at 7 and 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, in the SFJAZZ Center's Joe Henderson Lab, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. www.SFJAZZ.org.

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