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Cuban cabaret artist Juana Bacallao dies at 98

Cuban singer-entertainer Juana Bacallao performs at the "One-Eyed Cat" cafe in Havana in 2010.
Javier Galeano
Cuban singer-entertainer Juana Bacallao performs at the "One-Eyed Cat" cafe in Havana in 2010.

Cuban cabaret sensation Juana Bacallao died Saturday in her hometown of Havana, according to a statement on social media from Cuba's Ministry of Culture. She was 98 years old.

The famed, globe-trotting vocalist performed alongside artists such as Nat King Cole and Benny Moré. Her name became synonymous with the glamorous Cuban nightclub scene of the 1940s and 1950s.

But her career spanned almost her entire lifetime.

"She marked a milestone in the history of Cuban cabaret, from the 50s of the last century until just a few years ago," said the Ministry of Culture's statement.

Known for her husky voice, gaudy sequined dresses, blonde wigs and risqué performances, Bacallao thrilled audiences at Tropicana and other legendary Havana nightspots. According to a 2010 Denver Post article about one of Bacallao's performances, she asked the crowd, '"Do we have any virgins here?' before suggesting that some of the male patrons ought to pay extra for staring at her so hard."

Bacallao was the artist's main stage name. She was also known as Juana La Cubana. Her real name was Amelia Martínez Salazar, according to the Ministry of Culture.

Born in a working-class neighborhood in Havana in 1925, Bacallao was orphaned at 6 and attended Catholic school, before she was said to have been discovered as a teenager while cleaning houses by bandleader Obdulio Morales.

"Owner of a very special sense of Cuban and Creole humor, she took her art and wit to countries such as the United States, France, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Spain," said the statement on Facebook. "Her physical departure represents a sensitive loss for the Cuban music scene."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.