Miracle on 22nd Street

The show wouldn't begin until 10:30 p.m., but the television remote trucks were there three hours early. Clearly, someone was expecting action. Maybe even hoping for it. Screaming protesters, after all, make for great visuals. And nothing in Miami attracts protesters like musicians from Cuba.

So the appearance of that country's salsa sensation Issac Delgado in Miami Beach April 21 held the promise of exciting TV, perhaps something along the lines of the scene outside the Gusman Center two years ago, when Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his fans were greeted by distinguished representatives of the local exile community who smacked them over the head and hawked spitballs at evening gowns with such verve that they made national news.

Rubalcaba is well-known within the arcane world of jazz, and he drew a decent crowd downtown to Gusman despite the intimidation. But Issac Delgado? This was of a different magnitude. He's a red-hot item anywhere in the world people have taken a shine to Cuban music -- which means nearly everywhere, including Miami. Local businessman Hugo Miguel Cancio was certainly aware of this when he decided to bring Delgado here.

And certainly television news directors were not going to miss a unique opportunity. If a relatively obscure jazzman could ignite such a telegenic firestorm, just imagine what might happen with a juicy target like Delgado. So their crews arrived early for good positioning. And then they waited. And they waited. And waited. And after they'd shot too much footage of hundreds of happy concertgoers -- all smiling and thrilled and jumpy to get inside the Onyx nightclub on 22nd Street -- and after no protesters showed up and no spitting or headbanging was anywhere to be seen, they packed up their gear and went home.

No story. Or probably not much of a story. Or at least not much of the kind of story we've come to expect here in Miami, where simply adding a tune by Los Van Van to your radio station's playlist will cause a sensation and garner you a bomb threat or two. Where an aging Cuban chanteuse can provoke arsonists. Where it is still possible for ideologically suspect musicians to be disinvited to the Calle Ocho festival.

Those who expected madness and mayhem to greet Issac Delgado should have spoken with Hugo Cancio beforehand. If they had, they might not have been surprised when the concert went off without a hitch, when history was made in Miami.

The 33-year-old Cancio, flush from his groundbreaking success producing a theatrical film in Cuba (Los Zafiros: Locura Azul), says he simply felt it was a propitious time for something else unprecedented: a Miami concert by a big-name Cuban musical group. "After I made my film," he recalls, "I had an opportunity to feel the right-wingers' pressures and decided they weren't so bad: threatening calls, some letters. And I thought, 'If I get heat from a film, I might as well go ahead with a concert.' So I contacted my friend Issac."

The salsa king was more than simply interested. By Cancio's account, a Delgado performance in Miami became an obsession for both men, an obsession built on Cancio's instinct that this was the right moment and Delgado's hunch that he'd be well received here. After Cuban authorities were persuaded, Cancio, who came to Miami as part of the Mariel boatlift, went looking for a nonprofit "presenter" to satisfy U.S. State Department guidelines.

He struck out twice with local groups before finally convincing the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts to lend its name to a Miami show, which made sense as the festival had already arranged to present Delgado and several other Cuban acts over three days beginning April 17. Cancio then went looking for a venue, and bounced from Gusman to Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater to northwest Dade's rustic La Covacha restaurant before settling on Onyx, a cavernous Beach space that used to house Club Nu.

But then Cancio and Delgado fell prey to the notoriously inefficient Cuban bureaucracy. While policy honchos had agreed a Miami concert was worth the gamble, and while the U.S. State Department voiced no objection, Cuban paper pushers were slow to submit visa applications to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Not only was a tentative date at Jackie Gleason canceled as a result, but Delgado and his band missed the Massachusetts festival entirely. Then at the last minute, and with little notice, the paperwork was submitted and processed with astonishing speed by U.S. diplomats. On Friday night, April 17, Delgado called Cancio from the Havana airport to say that he, his wife, his fifteen bandmates, and his manager would be in Miami within hours.

Cancio scrambled. He confirmed Onyx as a venue, helped round up Miami relatives of band members for housing, rented equipment, and arranged for rehearsal time at Cafe Nostalgia, a popular Little Havana nightspot. Publicity was a problem, however. With barely four days until the concert, not much was possible other than squeezing a small notice into the Miami Herald and distributing a few thousand flyers at various nightclubs.

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