Nearly 45 minutes late for a confirmed sit-down on a recent balmy afternoon, Issac Delgado speeds through the glass doors of a Miami hotel, sunglasses still on and car keys dangling. Wearing jeans, a loose dress shirt, and loafers, he doesn't tender much of an explanation for his tardiness as he settles into the corner of a spongy sofa.
"I was busting my ass," he says. "But I learned a long time ago that at the end of the day, a second of your life is worth more than putting your life at risk for a second."
Time might not be of the essence these days for Delgado, a multitalented vocalist/bandleader/songwriter and among the most innovative and popular Cuban musicians ever. Still, he knew the clock wasn't exactly on his side when he decided last December to walk across the U.S.-Mexico border into Laredo, Texas. He was ready to follow his heart and leave Cuba -- even if it meant starting from scratch.
Issac Delgado performs Friday, June 23, at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave, Miami. The show begins at 8:00 p.m., and ticket costs range from $24 to $100. Visit www.ticketmaster.com.
"I felt the time was right for my family and I, but it's the kind of decision you don't really think you'll make until you actually go through with it. When my mother passed away, I think that was it," he says, nearing tears. "She meant everything to me, and I never was going to leave her behind."
Delgado is reluctant to discuss details of his entry into the country, only repeating that he walked across the border. From there he went to Tampa, where he stayed briefly with his father-in-law. Finally he set up shop in Miami with his wife, Massiel Valdes; and daughters Dalina and Alessia.
It might at first seem like career suicide for a man who enjoyed legions of fans in Cuba (not to mention Europe and the rest of Latin America) for his interpretive ability and magnetic stage presence. But Delgado has developed a reputation for a near-stubborn drive to achieve.
"One of the things Issac has is he's very set in his ways musically," says Cuban singer Aymee Nuviola, a former member of the Pacho Alonso Orchestra who also now lives in Miami. "There might be somebody telling him: Issac, that's not gong to work,' but he keeps pushing and makes it work."
Delgado was born into a theatrical and musical family in Havana. His mother, Lina Ramirez, founded the internationally renowned dance group Las Mulatas del Fuego in the late Forties. His older brother Nelson was a devoted guitarist and singer. But Issac wasn't enamored with the idea of following suit.
"I was wary of that lifestyle as a young kid," says Delgado. "The long hours my mother would spend away from home. All the alcohol and cigarettes."
He recalls singing along with his mother in the kitchen when he was a youngster but still not being completely sold on the idea of making a career of it. "I knew it wasn't a healthy life to live, so I wasn't a big fan."
Delgado enrolled in the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory to brush up on the violoncello but never fell for the instrument and instead set his sights on soccer and baseball. He went as far as entering the Escuela de Iniciación Deportiva in order to pursue an athletic career. "I never really caught on to what the professor was trying to teach me," he says. "Playing soccer and baseball was all I worried about."
Not until he turned eighteen did Delgado begin to develop a liking for Ruben Blades and Cheo Feliciano records. He soon took piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba's advice to join Proyecto, a group focused on modernizing classic Cuban rhythms. The band's formation rekindled Delgado's love of music.
Several years later he went fully professional with the Pacho Alonso Orquesta. But it was as lead vocalist for NG la Banda that Delgado truly burst onto the international scene. He was at the forefront when the dance group -- formed with the intention of creating a contemporary sound from the fusion of traditional influences -- scored big with world beat singles such as "Necesito una Amiga" ("I Need a Girlfriend"), from the 1992 hit album En la Calle (On the Street).
Lively performances spearheaded by Delgado's controlled but infectious onstage machismo made for a carnival-like atmosphere and attracted large crowds worldwide. "I'm not going to lie -- that was my highest moment in Cuba," says Delgado. "It opened up a lot of doors." The group traveled with regularity to Germany, Holland, and Canada as its popularity escalated.
But a desire to continue to evolve led the frontman to form in early 1991 his own orchestra, Issac Delgado y Su Grupo. After selecting songs by Pablo Milanes and Pedro Luis Ferrer, among others, Delgado recorded "Dando la Hora" ("Giving the Time"), his first CD with the band, alongside the artistic and compositional direction of Rubalcaba. With Rubalcaba on piano on the title track, as well as computer-synthesized horn sections, a technique new to the genre, Delgado was lauded for what critics hailed one of the best albums recorded in a foreign country.
He came back strong a year later with a commercially successful followup titled Con Ganas (With Willingness), which Rubalcaba helped produce in Venezuela and Cuba. But the question remains: Can Delgado develop success in unfamiliar territory?
"History isn't on his side. I'll tell you that right now," says a DJ for a local Latin FM station, who wished to remain anonymous. "Even top-tier guys in salsa have had trouble selling records. It won't be easy."
Delgado himself is aware he basically will have to start over. He knows he'll need promotional savvy and backing from the historically hard-line Cuban exile community. But he's willing to face the task.
"Almost everybody I talk to says, Everything is going to work out, but nothing in this life is given to you,'" he notes. "You have to go out and get it."
Plus the genre hasn't always been an easy sell for live music aficionados in this area. Even commercial darlings Gilberto Santa Rosa and Victor Manuelle have been confined to playing smaller venues, despite classic salsa enjoying a resurgence in other parts of the country, namely New York. Albita and Manolín "El Médico de la Salsa" have struggled to maintain staying power in the States -- and most notably Miami -- after enjoying a mass following on the island.
At the same time, Delgado thinks the exile community has softened its stance on artistry versus politics since his well-publicized -- and protested -- performances in the Magic City at the end of the past decade. Delgado was blasted for failing to denounce the Cuban government. He tries to avoid anything remotely controversial, yet he opines that although most prominent artists in Cuba enjoy "star treatment," that doesn't necessarily translate to artistic freedom. "Just because you're a star doesn't mean you're at liberty [to work on anything you want]," he says. "But that's in the past now."
Still, he hopes the reputation he built in Cuba over two decades is enough to convince a fickle audience to buy into what he has to offer. The new direction of his solo career will most likely depend on the success of En Primera Plana (On the Front Page), his first U.S.-produced album, released last month on La Calle Records.
Straightforwardly produced, it features a medley of his most influential hits in Cuba, including "Necesito una Amiga" and "Que Te Pasa Loco, Que Pasa Loco" ("What's Wrong with You Crazy Man, What's Going on Crazy Man").
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The album's first single, "La Mujer Que Mas Me Duele" ("The Women That Hurts Most"), is a high-energy duet with Victor Manuelle that explores the travels of a woman who has run off and left both men heartbroken. The song, which has seen ample airplay in recent weeks, features a harmonious mixture of arrangements selected by producer Sergio George. While Delgado delivers an effortless tenor, Manuelle interjects his signature high-pitch improvisational lyrics.
On the tune "Cemento, Ladrillo y Arena" ("Cement, Brick and Sand"), Delgado gets a lift from legendary bass master Israel "Cachao" Lopez's prolonged and gripping solo, followed by Rubalcaba's blistering exploits. Puerto Rican conga player Giovanni Hidalgo also lends a sweet touch to this collaboration of heavyweights. Though not overpowering, Delgado's vocal prowess and authority are clear on En Primera Plana as he delivers his verses with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Tentatively scheduled to perform this summer at jazz festivals in New York and Los Angeles, Delgado still intends to write his latest chapter one day at a time. He'll begin in Miami this Saturday night in what he says will be an old-style Cuban rumbón, with several surprise guests slated to share the stage with him -- even if he initially will feel like an outsider in what should be more like his back yard.
"I'm starting from the bottom again because I left everything," he says. "But I don't have any regrets. I'm going to do everything in my power to get to the top."