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.

Such was the power of Delgado's name, though, that word spread in a flash. A voice-mail number for reservations began overloading hourly; Onyx's phone lines sagged under the weight of nonstop inquiries. But it was the nature of those calls that put a smile on Cancio's face. "I knew things had changed when I sat down and listened to more than 100 calls," he says. "There was not a single threatening or inappropriate call." By Sunday he had logged 700 reservations. Attendance was obviously not going to be a problem. (Though Delgado had decided to play for free, Cancio would rack up more than $20,000 in production costs. With so little advance notice, he thought he would lose that, but the rush for tickets gave him hope.)

If anything, the widespread interest in Delgado might have been expected to generate a corresponding interest among those who would condemn such an appearance and perhaps attempt to disrupt it. Maybe they were caught off guard. Maybe traveling all the way to Miami Beach was too daunting. Maybe they realized they would have been badly outnumbered. Whatever the reason, the only unruly souls anywhere near Onyx that night were those rabid Issac Delgado fans whose fear of not gaining admission led to some pushing and shoving at the door. But eventually everyone got inside, where they were treated to an emotionally charged evening of music the likes of which this town may never see again.

Delgado couldn't mention the word Miami without the crowd -- estimated by Cancio to be 1000 strong -- erupting into cheers. They sang along with every tune. They swayed and clapped and danced and jammed in as close as possible to the stage. They hooted and hollered when Gonzalo Rubalcaba joined the band for an extended solo. They had the time of their lives -- knowing this was not just another great concert but a moment of historical significance. And then it was over and they all went home. Peaceably.

A few days later Hugo Cancio was still giddy. Music promoters from around the nation were calling to offer congratulations. Several Miami Beach club owners contacted him with offers to host whatever might be next. Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina telephoned Delgado in Miami and offered his own personal felicidades. "People have been waiting for someone to have the guts to do it," Cancio said. "It needed to happen. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to make history.

"I belong to a new generation of Cubans," he went on. "It's not my fault that Cuban and U.S. authorities are in a war. I just want things to be normal."

Cancio got a satisfying taste of the normal world not long after everyone had left Onyx. He, Delgado, and Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez (along with Hernandez's mother) jumped into a limo and scooted over to the News Cafe for a late dinner. Not surprisingly, their presence caused a stir, and a number of people lined up for autographs -- from the Cuban baseball player and his mom.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin