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Salsa star leaves Cuba, makes Tampa new home

Published January 26, 2007

"La Sagundita" by Issac Delgado.
La Formula, ©2001 Ahi-Nama Music

Cuban salsa star Issac Delgado, one of the island’s biggest musicians, has left his homeland and resettled in Tampa in one of the most notable music industry defections in the last decade.

Music experts and people who know Delgado speculated that he chose this moment to abandon his life of intense popularity and relative comfort in Cuba given the country’s uncertain future following the illness of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Cubans don’t know which way the political and economic system will turn nor how changes, if any, might affect U.S. laws that currently give Cuban refugees almost instant asylum.

Rumors had swirled for weeks in music circles and on the Internet about the location of the 44-year-old dance band sensation who has toured the world. He stopped in Tampa in 2002.

But Delgado managed to keep his plans under wraps until this week, when publicists announced he had signed with William Morris Agency for global representation and moved to a house in Tampa with his wife and children.

Details of the defection of the two-time Latin Grammy nominee have not been released. But the office of publicist Adolfo Fernandez in Miami confirmed that Delgado had settled in Tampa and was at that moment in a recording studio in Miami working on a new single release. A new CD will be put out later this spring by La Calle Records, a division of the Univision Music Group.

Latin Grammy winner Sergio George will produce the album. He has produced past works for musicians such as Tito Puente and Marc Anthony

 Delgado and his family could not be reached for comment Friday. His long-term success in the United States, however, is not guaranteed, a reflection of the gulf dividing the two country’s vastly different music industries and Americans’ lack of familiarity with Cuba’s aggressive brew of funk- and jazz-fueled salsa known as timba.

Other prominent timba musicians have left the island in the past decade – such as Carlos Manuel and the artist Manolin --  only to watch their careers stumble in the United States.

But experts think Delgado, former front man for NG La Banda, one of the top dance bands in Cuba and timba innovators, might have what it takes to make a smashing cross over.

“He’s an overall fantastic artist and a great businessman,’’ said Hugo Cancio, head of Fuego Entertainment in Miami and who first brought Delgado on tour to the United States in 1998.

He noted that Delgado lined up a well-known agent and record label right away and moved outside the political climate of Miami to Tampa, though Delgado’s wife reportedly has family here.

“Out of all of them, he could break the ice,’’ Cancio said.

Still, Delgado faces some challenges, says Robin Moore, author of Music & Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba, a 2006 book chronicling the development of prominent music styles and artists in the years after Castro came into power.

Moore notes that many popular musicians have become Cuba’s “new rich.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its massive subsidies and trade deals, Cuba turned to tourism to help keep its economy afloat.

Popular musicians who play gigs throughout Havana and tour Europe and Asia can now earn far more than doctors and scientists. The government gets a cut of their money, but some musicians can sign independent contracts and keep a larger portion of their income than in the past, Moore said. They also have nice apartments and own cars.

But Cuba’s timba scene is insular, its lyrics about everyday life on the island, its dance rhythms complex  – qualities that don’t always resonate even with Hispanic American audiences, Moore said.

What’s more, Cuban musicians are used to a socialist system that has not prepared them to promote their music and image in a capitalist economy, Moore said.

Delgado already has succeeded in lining up big-name promoters. But he still has to create a new audience and financial success without sacrificing his passion for his music, Moore said.

“On the one hand, the artists recognize they may need to alter their style in order to accommodate a new country,” he said. “On the other hand, some of them go so commercial ...they alienate a lot of people that were interested in them for their music.’’

Delgado himself has long offered alternative, more mellow version of himself. It may help him avoid the plight of other timba musicians, who have become construction workers and cell phone salesmen in the United States, said Lara Greene, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University writing her dissertation on timba artists in Miami.

Delgado himself disputed the timba label in a 2002 interview with the St. Petersburg Times before his West Tampa concert.

“I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as a timba musician,’’ said Delgado, whose recordings also have tapped the poetic lyricism of Cuba’s trova movement, traditional Cuban son and modern salsa.

“I have a desire to transmit spirituality and good vibes through my music,’’ he said. “I think it’s the fundamental task of all genuine artists.’’

Times researcher John Martin and wire reports contributed.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or

[Last modified January 26, 2007, 20:34:55]

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