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Ready to test the free market

Issac Delgado hopes to find stardom in the U.S., something that has eluded other Cuban defectors.

June 16, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Cuba's socialist system didn't undermine the artistic freedom of singer Issac Delgado with draconian repression or ideological censorship. It gradually got to him by bureaucratic nicks and cuts.

Before defecting to the U.S. last year, Delgado was one of the island's top salsa stars, a celebrity who enjoyed relative prosperity in Havana and traveled freely throughout the world to perform and record. But back home, he couldn't even get the government to authorize an Internet e-mail account, forcing him to find Web access on the black market.

That may have been just a communist inconvenience. But then two years ago, Delgado said, authorities decreed that Cuba's most popular dance bands would no longer be allowed to perform at major tourist hotels because they attracted too many Cubans carrying U.S. dollars to venues meant to attract U.S. dollars from foreigners.

"In Cuba, there's a Ministry of Culture that dictates which way things are going to go in music, literature and art," said Delgado, who performs today at the Playboy Jazz Festival, his first Los Angeles appearance since moving to this country. "Everything is channeled, and one can't step out of those boundaries. So I didn't feel free to do what I wanted because the ruling system tells you exactly where you can work and what you can do."

Delgado is speaking out for the first time since he quietly settled in Florida last year. Before anybody realized it, the singer was living in Tampa with his wife, Masiel, and their two daughters, 4 and 11, along with a son by his first marriage, Issac Jr., who plays piano in Dad's band. (The family took up residence with the singer's father-in-law, Miguel Valdes, former pitching coach for the Cuban national baseball team.)

I broke the story of Delgado's migration in January, but he wasn't granting interviews at the time. Silence is a smart strategy for somebody caught in that political limbo between Cuban stardom and U.S. exile. It's like walking the plank. Behind you are those who consider you a traitor. Ahead is nothing but uncertainty.

Delgado says he had been thinking of making a move for some time, but he didn't dare while his mother was still alive. After she passed away last year, he felt free to take the chance of leaving Cuba, perhaps never to return.

"If my mother were still alive," he says, "I would still be in Cuba today." His only lingering concern is the two children he left behind, a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Delgado says he hopes his decision won't jeopardize their future on the island.

Other top performers who took that plunge before Delgado -- notably singers Carlos Manuel and Manolin, nicknamed the Salsa Doctor -- have seen their careers suddenly tank. They burned their bridges by condemning the Cuban government, only to be rejected by audiences in their adopted homeland.

This musical drama has been playing out for more than 20 years, but it still hurts to see such great Cuban talent get marooned on the unforgiving shores of capitalism. Beyond that, it has been a severe disappointment to see the enormous promise of Cuba's astounding contemporary music scene simply collapse, partly because the music never got a strong foothold in the United States, a market Cubans came to covet at the expense of their once gloriously independent sense of creativity.

There was so much at stake, since some of us considered the Cubans as saviors of salsa, the Afro-Caribbean dance genre that had gone bland and mushy after the thrilling New York-based boom of the 1970s. We cringed every time one of our favorite stars fled from Havana and fell flat on his face in trying to translate his success to a new world.

Now, it's up to Delgado to overcome the curse of exile. In this quest, he faces another capricious and tyrannical master -- the free market.

"I feel like I'm starting again from zero," said Delgado, who has put together a multinational, 13-piece band for his U.S. tour.

I've been following Delgado's career since my first visit to Cuba in 1988, when Havana was still an austere and surreal Soviet outpost. That same year, a new band emerged from the colorless communist environment, one destined to revolutionize Cuban music with a frenetic dance style called timba, a dense and complex fusion of salsa, jazz and funk. The group was NG La Banda, and it featured the smooth vocals of Delgado.

Though cultural comparisons are often ridiculous, Delgado can be likened to Frank Sinatra insofar as the Cuban singer also keeps his cool over a swinging big band and croons with jazzy phrasings on romantic numbers.

Delgado's vocal style comes through clearly on his latest album, "En Primera Plana" (On the e Front Page), released domestically by Univision's La Calle imprint. It's a stellar recording, co-produced by Delgado and Sergio George, who created Marc Anthony's successful New York salsa sound.

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