Juana Bacallao, Famed Cuban Diva Who Ruled Island’s Cabaret Scene, Dies at 98

Juana Bacallao, a renowned Cuban singer and cabaret diva who still performed until recently, has died. She was 98.

Bacallao died Saturday (Feb. 24) after spending several days at a hospital in Havana, according to a statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. Officials didn’t say why she was hospitalized.

Bacallao was known for her husky voice, risque personality and being unpredictable, clad in wigs and extravagant costumes. She performed at the famed Tropicana club in the 1940s and ’50s and sang alongside artists like Nat King Cole.

“I will never retire. I will only stop once death has come for me,” she said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press.

Born Neri Amelia Martínez Salazar, she was sent to a Catholic boarding school after becoming orphaned at 6 years old.

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She was discovered as a teenager while singing as she cleaned homes and was given the moniker “Juana Bacallao,” becoming a sensation in Cuba’s cabaret scene.

Bacallao performed with stars, including singer and pianist Bola de Nieve, percussionist Chano Pozo and singer Benny Moré.

“I know what life is — both poverty and wealth,” Bacallao told the AP more than a decade ago. “This is my land. It is where I was born, and it is where I will die.”

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