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Issac Delgado's Miami concert at Rancho Gaspar last month was advertised only through radio bemba, the Cuban grapevine, and by a vague sign at the entrance to the nightclub-cum-ranch that read "Live Music Today" in Spanish. But by dusk on a hot Sunday afternoon, more than 3000 people had come out to Hialeah Gardens to hear Delgado and his fifteen-piece band. A row of ardent girls had long staked their places at the foot of the stage, and on the grass behind them spread a thick denim expanse of fans yelling excitedly for their favorite songs and dancers who knew all the words. Salsa's Mr. Smooth spotted old neighbors from Havana, long-time followers, fellow musicians, and good friends. One of them, piano giant and Broward resident Gonzalo Rubalcaba, sat in, treating the audience to a rare local appearance.
A few days later on the phone from San Francisco, in the midst of an eight-show run at the venerable Oakland jazz club Yoshi's, Delgado mused about his contrasting experiences on the two coasts. The Hialeah show was "incredibly underground" and proof once again that "Miami is an extension of Cuba," while Yoshi's yielded a "mixed, American crowd."
"The great thing is to be able to reach such a wide range of people," said Delgado, who will return to Miami Tuesday for a concert at the Polish American Club. "Maybe music really can overcome barriers."
As the leader of the first contemporary dance band from Havana to break the local Cuba blockade with his 1998 show at Club Onyx, Delgado will forever be a symbol of musical detente in Miami. But more significant is the transcendent power of his music, a personal brand of romantic salsa with jazz virtuosity and barrio attitude that melds high and low Cuban genres into dance music with beats that both Cubans and foreigners can grasp. As the Sinatra of salsa, a master of elegant phrasing, Delgado's unique voice has been instantly identifiable since his early days as a soloist in the Eighties with NG La Banda.
Delgado recruited the best young musicians in Havana for his first solo album, Dando La Hora, released stateside on Qbadisc in 1995. A couple years later, when foreign labels came calling en masse in Havana, the handsome and highly collaborative Delgado seemed poised for widespread international exposure. A deal with RMM Records yielded three albums and a show with New York's salsa all-stars at Madison Square Garden. His latest release, La Formula on Ahí-Namá, featuring guest artists like Rubalcaba and Pablo Milanes, yielded two Latin Grammy nominations. But Delgado, like other Cuban artists, has seen that critical acclaim does not necessarily translate into massive record sales or radio play. He continues to tour in the States and Europe, but he describes a transitional period for musicians in Cuba, now that the venues that spurred the Nineties boom have closed their doors and few record executives from abroad come knocking. Those who do are usually more interested now in hip-hop than timba -- the dance music that in the Nineties seemed able to conquer the world market.
"Cuban groups have realized there's a crisis in the music industry, and it's hard for us now to get our music into the market -- they want Latin pop," says Delgado. "Timba is an attitude, it's a way of playing that's aggressive; maybe it's an expression of an agitated way of life. But it was hard for us to make inroads playing so aggressively, so we're relaxing a little bit with arrangements that tend to be more lyrical. We're looking for something simpler."
To that end Delgado has found inspiration in the idealistic messages of the Cuban Nueva Trova movement of the 1970s. He recently finished recording an album of songs written by Milanes, Silvio Rodriguez, Pedro Luis Ferrer, and other composers known for their socially committed folk music.
"It was music that, for us Cubans, was for national consumption," Delgado says. "That was the music that filled the stadiums back then."
Along with his band members -- too young to know many of the songs that meant so much to the Cuban people in the Seventies -- Delgado brought noted Latin sidemen from New York to record in Havana (he notes the players received no compensation for their sessions). They included astounding timbalero Ralph Irizarry and Venezuelan-born conguero Roberto Quintero. Together with Jon Fausty, the consummate Latin dance music engineer, they brought new swing to the romantic songs.
"For me, this is like going back in time," Delgado says of the album, which will be released in Spain on Virgin Records and as a three-song disc in Cuba this summer (he is currently negotiating with a U.S. label). "This is my nostalgia."
At 40, Delgado concedes that he is now part of Cuban music's older generation. And at a time when young musicians are "looking for new currents," he's helping the process by producing new bands, most recently a Havana rap group called Frijoles Negros. He also produced a solo album for Haila Mompé, one of the original singers with the group Bamboleo, who is often likened to a young Celia Cruz. Delgado has brought Mompé along as a featured vocalist on his U.S. concert tour. Her ground-shaking soneo on the stage of Rancho Gaspar was a powerful promise of new Havana sounds to come.
"The important thing is to keep creating," Delgado says. "It's really about being present. We're just going to keep on confirming that we're here."