In April 1998 Issac Delgado made musical history, playing Club Onyx as the first national of the socialist state of Cuba to give a live concert in Miami-Dade County. A small group of protesters shouted at the 2000 concertgoers that night, but the show went on without incident. Looking back on that landmark event from his home in Havana last week, Delgado estimates, "Seventy percent of the people [of Miami] were in my favor." Even as the groundbreaker, Delgado sees his reception as favorable compared with other bands, such as Los Van Van, that followed him. "Many other groups have received a less pleasant welcome," he observes. For much of the past year there has been a lull in concerts by Cuban nationals in Miami as Castro's government has been reluctant to send the musicians into what bureaucrats viewed as dangerous territory during the controversy regarding Elian Gonzalez. This week Delgado returns to town armed with a new CD, La Formula, and a new record label, Ahí-Namá! (Cuban slang for "That's it! Look no further!"). Expecting the unexpected, Delgado says he looks forward to seeing how the audiences in Miami have changed. "You never know with Miami," he notes. "Miami is always a surprise."
"El Chevere de la Salsa" ("Salsa's Smooth One") as Delgado is affectionately known, first came to South Florida under the auspices of intrepid promoter Hugo Cancio. Two years later his show will be hosted by Debbie Ohanian, the owner of Starfish who, in November 1999, bore the brunt of the controversy over Los Van Van. "Nothing can come close to the Van Van incident," says Ohanian when asked to compare that event with Delgado's upcoming performance. "I mean, I don't even think Los Van Van could."
Has the face of the Miami Mafia changed to a unified polyrhythmic "Chan Chan Exilio" as a result of the worldwide Buena Vista Social Club fervor and the recent court ruling against the Cuba affidavit? "Miami has changed so much," Ohanian laughs. "Not one person called me a communist on the last right-wing radio show I did." On a more serious note, she offers, "I think they've picked other battles. Musicians are not the targets anymore." She says the charms of El Chevere in particular travel well across the Florida Straits. "He's probably the biggest act [on the island] and has the hottest song out, Carnaval,'" she adds. Given Delgado's appeal and a new Miami climate, Ohanian forecasts a healthy turnout. "People no longer fear being seen at the shows, losing their jobs, or anything like that. It all comes down to who wants to see the show, and Issac is a huge draw."
Starfish, 1427 West Ave, Miami Beach
Friday, December 22, and Saturday, December 23. Doors open at 10:00 p.m. Admission is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Call 305-673-1717.
Delgado's commercial trajectory has been laden with surprises and disappointments as well. In addition to the political complications of Cuban citizenship, the musician has faced the difficulty of selling timba. Unique to the island, timba is development from traditional Cuban rhythms like son and rumba blended into salsa with heavily percussive influences of North American rock, jazz, rap, and funk. Delgado lived in Spain for a year awaiting RMM's promise to catapult promotions and then returned to Cuba unsatisfied. After what this soft-spoken singer described as an amicable release from his RMM contract, he went on to record La Formula independently. California-based label Ahí-Namá! picked up the disc for U.S. distribution beginning December 28. "They want to give me a big surprise," says Delgado excitedly of his impending tour of the United States. "They won't tell me what they're up to."
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Ahí-Namá! records president Jimmy Maslon gives us a hint. "We're jammin' [La Formula] into the stores!" he exclaims over his cell phone as he chomps on Chinese take-out in Los Angeles. "We've been so busy making sure it's positioned in all the major outlets: Tower, Virgin, et cetera." Maslon believes Ahí-Namá! can overcome the longstanding resistance to playing island music on commercial radio. "It's definitely a big problem in Miami and at some of the stations owned by [Raul] Alarcon," he says. "What we're going to do is buy one-minute commercials and play the song. We're hoping the public will just call in and demand it."
Delgado sought out Ahí-Namá! for its reputation of aggressive promotion and support. The label has launched the international career of timba powerhouse Bamboleo as well as furthered the dissemination of old-timers such as Laito. "He was happy with the work we've done with Bamboleo and our other groups, so when I was in Cuba recently he called me about the CD," recounts Maslon. He clearly is thrilled with the acquisition. "Issac gave us fifteen songs," he gushes, "with the expectation that we would cut four, but there wasn't a song we could cut. We feel like this album has a potential that can go between salsa, timba, and pop." Between bites he adds, "I was totally flattered he came to me. I mean, Isaac is a whole other mundo; he's what you refer to as tiene un angel' [having an angel, which among Cuban musicians means possessing enormous talent and grace]."
La Formula is graced not only by Delgado's angel but also by contributions from legendary troubadour Pablo Milanes and piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba. "Gonzalo plays on ten tracks, and his talent impregnates every other musician. He just brings out the best in every single one," Delgado reveals with admiration. "Su angel es enorme." ("His angel is enormous.") Recording the album on his own permitted Delgado the freedom to explore themes that interested him. "I even afforded myself the luxury of singing in Italian," he confesses, "but then my biggest audience in Europe is Italian." Without the looming presence of a label, Delgado felt an open channel of expression. "Commercially the label serves its purpose," he admits of the production process. "They gear you toward sales, but I figured I'd let luck handle it."
For Salsa's Smooth One luck can be a matter of being in the right place at the right time. "My music takes a position relative to our times," he says, betraying his education in historical materialism. "My music relates to what we are living right now." He describes himself as "an artist of Cuban popular music" with an emphasis on the roots of "Afro-Cuban music." Despite that adherence to tradition, he says, "I'm an innovator unafraid of change." As the first and latest Cuban artist to hit the salsa stage in Miami since the belated thaw of our local cold war, Delgado revisits the progress made. "It's true, I was the first, and at that time it seemed logical." He hopes this next visit will push the progress even further. "The tensions have lessened, and my expectations are to let the music be the medium for cultural healing and understanding," says El Chevere. "Music is the easiest, most logical, and beautiful platform to bridge together thoughts on culture."