Musician defects from Cuba for new life in Tampa
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published January 27, 2007
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 because of the country's uncertain future after the illness of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Cubans don't know which way the political and economic system will turn or how changes, if any, might affect U.S. laws that now 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 comments 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 crossover.
"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. 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 has long offered an 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 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," Delgado said.
"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 contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 661-2441.
Delgado, also known as El Chevere de la Salsa (Salsa's Mr. Cool), was born in Havana in 1962. He began his music career in 1981 in the band Proyecto. His album La Formula was No. 1 in Cuba and was so popular in the United States that Delgado received two Latin Grammy nominations.
To listen to his music, go to www.links.tampabay.com.
Notable defections Arturo Sandoval : The jazz trumpeter escaped during a 1990 Italian concert tour.
Livan Hernandez: In 1995, the future World Series MVP walked out of a hotel in Monterrey, Mexico.
Rolando Arrojo: A member of the 1996 Cuban Olympic team, the future Devil Rays pitcher jumped into a car outside his Georgia hotel.
Compiled from Times files and wires by researcher John Martin