Now that the Latin Grammys are coming to Miami, local politicians have been coy about the likelihood that Cuban artists might perform at the awards ceremony. City of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo coddled his constituency by claiming on Spanish-language radio that secret assurances had been made so no Cuban nationals would appear on the show. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas prefers to leave the possibility to chance, suggesting to anti-Castro groups that they hold off on protests until the Latin Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS) actually announces the lineup. The hope: Cuban nationals just might not make the cut. Why worry now?
Why not? We might at least consider which Cuban nationals are eligible this year. To be eligible for a Latin Grammy nomination, an artist must have released a recording in one of twelve official fields (pop, rock, rap/hip-hop, tropical, et cetera) between April 1, 2000, and March 31, 2001. Releasing the disc is not enough: A record company or a member of the academy must enter the recording for consideration. Recordings then are screened by experts, who double-check eligibility and put each entry in the proper field. Voting members narrow down the entries for potential nominees. A blue-ribbon committee then sets the official list of nominees, with up to five hopefuls in each category.
Performers on the awards show are culled from the list of nominees with an eye to each act's appeal to a mainstream U.S. television audience. Ratings mean more to the academy than do politics. The controversy over the alleged exclusion of Mexican regional acts from last year's show had nothing to do with the authoritarian government of Mexico's longstanding PRI party, then on its last legs. Instead LARAS spokesperson Adam Sandler suggested in an interview that the mariachi fashion and accordion pumping of the genre that accounts for more than 60 percent of all Latin-music sales would not play as well in Dubuque as Cristina Aguilera's Spanish lesson. Which Cuban artists, then, might pack ratings power?
If the conference that preceded this past week's Latin Billboard Awards is any indication, popular salsero Issac Delgado is a very strong candidate. El Chevere de la Salsa (Salsa's Mr. Cool) has a track record as a pioneer. He was the first Cuban national to perform in Miami back in 1996, kicking off a series of concerts and protests that climaxed with the ugly scene outside the Los Van Van show in 1999, then pretty much settled into business as usual at clubs on Miami Beach and on the outskirts of Miami-Dade. Delgado scored another first at Billboard this year, as the first Cuban national featured in an official showcase at the annual conference, where up-and-coming Latin stars do their best to impress industry bigwigs and media. Another island salsa star, Paulito FG, had hoped to perform in a showcase in 1999, but the Cuban government did not grant him a visa -- unwilling to divert attention away from the Elian Gonzalez-propaganda show that dominated the island 24-7 at that time. With little Elian back in Cardenas, salseros are free once again to roam Miami Beach nightspots.
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Over the past four months, at various points of a U.S. tour in support of his album La Formula, Delgado has played Starfish six times. Arguably the most important of those performances was the show a week ago Wednesday, where El Chevere showed off his skills to Billboard Award attendees, many of whom are the very same members who will soon be whittling down the list of potential Grammy nominees. El Chevere's nonstop two-and-a-half-hour set, with a guest appearance by long-time friend and piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba, left no doubt that the gifted vocalist could blow up at the Latin Grammys, even without the help of any anti-Castro bombs.
Delgado recorded La Formula on his own dime in Havana's state-of-the-art Abdala Studios. The Los Angeles-based Ahi-Nama Records licensed the finished recording and released it for the U.S. market last December. Ahi-Nama owner Jimmy Maslon is leaving nothing to chance in promoting the disc -- or Delgado's chances for a Latin Grammy nomination. He entered Issac, along with fellow island acts Bamboleo and Maraka, for Latin Grammy consideration. He forked over the cash for Delgado's official showcase and stuffed invitations to it, along with the CD, into every one of the goody bags handed out to conference attendees. "I'm doing whatever I can," he said by phone from his California office. In the coming weeks, he has a crew set to film Issac in concert in front of screaming fans as soon as he can get the government to clear a location. "I don't care where it is," he says. "I just want to make sure [the fans] can dance." Maslon's goal is to air the concert on a network such as BET, to give the U.S. public a glimpse at the frenzy unleashed by the island's best loved salsero.
Maslon already is seeing the fruit of some of his efforts to break the singer. Delgado has packed clubs across the United States, including repeat performances at the New York City institution S.O.B.'s. Ahi-Nama currently is running a one-minute spot on the weekend tropical show on KLVE-FM (107.5) in Los Angeles. The spot features the Delgado single "Chocolate," which has climbed to number six on the Radio Musica charts, close behind hits by U.S.-based salsa kings Victor Manuelle and Huey Dunbar. This month's Pulse Latino, Tower Records' in-store Spanish-language magazine, features Delgado on the cover. The interview inside ends with a gushing testimonial by actor Michael Keaton, who happened upon a Delgado concert in Cannes during the international music conference MIDEM. Batman's euphoric band-from-Mars reaction is an encouraging sign for an academy eager to please uninitiated Anglo television viewers.
What would it mean for Delgado if all the effort does land him in U.S. prime time? "There's nothing wrong with sharing the stage with people better known than me," smiles the self-effacing star. Conscious that he would likely find himself at the center of controversy once again, he adds, "I think that people will say, when they see us Cubans up close, that we are people made of flesh and bone, just like them."