Cuban salsa star follows his heart, dream to the U.S.

by Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

1 May 2007

Salsa singer, Isaac Delgado, from Cuba, sings to a crowd at Club Onyx in Miami Beach, Florida, April 22, 1998. (Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/MCT) 

TAMPA, Fla. - Five months ago, singer Issac Delgado, one of Cuba’s biggest salsa stars, walked across the U.S.-Mexico border into Laredo, Texas, bringing with him only his family, his talent and his reputation.

“I was in a panic,” he told The Miami Herald recently, in his first interview since his defection. “I thought I was crazy. It’s a decision that you don’t know if you’ll be able to make until you make it.”

Delgado, 45, is gambling that he can achieve his dream - to become the first modern Cuban music artist to find commercial success stateside. His future hangs on the CD whose first song, “La Mujer Que Mas Me Duele” (“The Woman That Hurts Me Most”), a duet with Puerto Rican salsa star Victor Manuelle, went to radio last week. “En Primera Plana” (“On the Front Page”), his first American-produced album, comes out May 22.

“People tell me, `Oh you know everything is going to go well,’” he said. “(But) how do I know that?”

Delgado always wanted a career in the United States, but he was afraid to leave behind everything he’d built on the island.

“All the top-level artists in Cuba, we have a privileged status,” he explains. “But this doesn’t mean that we have the freedom to be able to do what we want.”

He tried living in Spain and then for three years in Mexico, traveling back and forth to Cuba. But tense U.S.-Cuban politics always frustrated his attempts to establish himself artistically in the United States.

“You come with a stigma,” he said. “Being in Cuba you’re always at an underground level in the U.S.”

His mother’s death from cancer eight months ago freed him to leave. But her passing also intensifies his feelings of loss.

“My mother was everything for me,” he said, sitting in the living room of his father-in-law’s home in a comfortable suburban division of Tampa, where he has been living with his wife, Massiel Valdes, and two young daughters, Dalina, 4, and Alessia, 11. He breaks down briefly before going on. “I left my house, my career, my life, my audience, everything. I arrived here, and now I have nothing. You’re never prepared to take a step like that.”

Delgado has some powerful help on his new path. His reputation, and relationships built during previous visits to the States, have earned him a deal with La Calle Records, a subsidiary of Univision Music Group, part of the powerful Spanish language media company. He is represented by the William Morris Talent Agency, a top player. This summer he’ll play a number of prestigious dates, including the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles and the Prospect Park Bandshell for the Celebrate Brooklyn series.

But he is also bucking heavy odds. He sings salsa, a genre whose sales and popularity have fallen precipitously since the mid-‘90s. Other Cuban stars who defected in recent years - Manolin, El Medico de la Salsa and Carlos Manuel - have seen their careers flop in the United States. Albita, who rose to Miami cult status in the early `90s, has continued as a jazz-fusion artist for a small audience.

Delgado is trying to avoid what he calls the “cross we Cubans have, of having to talk about politics.” Although he recorded his newest CD in Miami, he has not made any political statements and has not talked to the media until now.

“I am not going to get mixed up in this story,” he said. “I am making personal declarations here. Because this is the first and last time that I am going to talk about social themes for me, for my case. I am not going to talk about other people’s situations, because each person has their own story.”

He has had some advice in this from his friend Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the celebrated Cuban jazz pianist whose 1996 Miami concert inspired a heated protest by exiles angered that he hadn’t publicly broken with the Cuban government, although he left Cuba in 1992. The two men have been close friends and musical collaborators since their late teens.

Rubalcaba says that, as he did in Cuba, Delgado will stay focused on his music.

“I think Issac is very clear that the work he’s done will speak for him,” Rubalcaba said from his South Florida home. “He never needed to make any political statements for his audience around the world to understand his music.”

Delgado’s backers are counting on his talent, musicianship and previous success in the United States. A number of Delgado’s Cuban hits were covered successfully by U.S. artists. He released several CDs here, the last of which, 2001’s “La Formula,” earned two Latin Grammy nominations. (Delgado’s visit for the Latin Grammys, scheduled for Sept. 11 that year, was cut short by the World Trade Center attacks; afterwards, he donated blood and played at a benefit.) And he has an international audience built by touring in Europe and Latin America.

“In my mind Issac Delgado is the most significant singer of his generation in Cuba,” said William Morris agent Michel Vega, who produced Delgado’s first U.S. tour in 1997.

A key factor in Delgado’s signing with La Calle was the chance to work with producer Sergio George, whose knack for combining commercial savvy and musical innovation produced groundbreaking mid-‘90s rap-salsa trio DLG and Celia Cruz’s late-career megahit, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” George said he leaped at the chance to work with Delgado.

“He blew me away live - his musicality and interpretive skills,” said George, the label’s vice president of artist and repertoire.

Delgado said the excitement was mutual. “I didn’t come here to change my music, but at the same time I wanted to do something new.”

George said that Delgado adapted quickly to a more focused production and song style. “He cannot come here and do what he did in Cuba,” George said. “This is a very radio-based, song-based market.”

Music and family anchor Delgado in his strange new world. The first time he drove on the Palmetto Expressway, he thought he was in “an intergalactic war.” Vega had to explain parking meters to him. “Coming here on tour is not like coming here to live - it’s really something how different life is,” Delgado said, shaking his head. But then Dalina crawls into his lap to nuzzle his neck, and he smiles down at her, centered again.

Emotion flickers across his face as he listens to the new CD - delight at a trumpet solo, something more pensive for a medley of his old hits. A cover of an old cha cha with the great Cuban bassist Cachao, virtuoso conga player Giovanni Hidalgo and Rubalcaba has him shaking his head with admiration. It was the first time Cachao and Rubalcaba played together, but the group recorded it in a single take, on the second run-through.

The wonder of that session is part of what keeps Delgado going. As the final song, in a rootsy style called changui, plays, his father-in-law Miguel Valdes (the head coach of the Cuban National Baseball Team for 30 years, until he defected with pitcher Jose Contreras in 2002) dances exuberantly, despite a sprained ankle. Delgado sits back laughing. For the first time that day, the anxiety leaves his face.

“A person can’t stop halfway down the road,” he said. “You have to define your life.”

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