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Ready to test the free market

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.”

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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.

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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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Still, timba fans will miss the more progressive sound of Delgado’s Cuban recordings. The singer admits making some concessions -- letting George select most of the songs, softening those driving Cuban bass lines and slowing down the tempo for more conservative stateside salsa tastes.

But he promises he won’t hold back on stage.

“Besides, I’m never going to lose the essence of who I am,” he says. “Everything around me might sound Puerto Rican, but I am Cuban, and nobody can take the Cubano out of me.”

Interestingly, Delgado will share the Hollywood Bowl stage this weekend with Arturo Sandoval, the former trumpeter with Irakere who caused waves when he defected from Cuba to the U.S. a generation ago. (Artists such as Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, also formerly of Irakere, have found more acceptance in U.S. jazz circles than have exiles working the salsa dance scene.) Sandoval and Delgado will showcase different Afro-Cuban styles, pre- and post-Castro: The former with a big-band tribute to 1950s mambo and the latter with a taste of 1990s timba, a style, ironically, foreshadowed by Irakere’s earlier experimentations.

“Being here doesn’t give me any greater control over things, such as whether I can get the radio to play my songs or not,” the singer says. “The only thing I can control is myself and my willingness to work and expose my music a little more to the public, which will have the last word. That’s the biggest censor an artist can have -- the public that listens to your music.”

Issac Delgado and his band perform at the 29th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival, today at 2:30 p.m., Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. $17.50 to $130. (323) 850-2000 , or for full lineups go to www.hollywoodbowl.com.

Relationships and addictions, linked

If you’re not in the mood today for loud Latin jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, you can head to the Ford Amphitheatre for an afternoon of poetry and introspection. Former gang member and award-winning author Luis J. Rodriguez will be performing “Notes of a Bald Cricket,” described as a stream-of-consciousness poem exploring past relationships and addictions, which sometimes are the same thing. The piece is directed by Ruben “Funkahuatl” Guevara with a soundtrack of R&B; oldies.

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Rodriguez is best known for his 1993 memoir, “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.”, but he’s been pretty prolific since then, judging from his website, www.luisjrodriguez.com. In recent weeks, the author has been scrambling to save Tia Chucha’s Cafe, the creative outpost he co-founded in culturally challenged Sylmar. Tia Chucha was evicted from her strip mall location, and had to relocate to temporary quarters with all her books, music and artwork. A benefit for the beloved venue is scheduled July 29, when Rodriguez will be back at the Ford with a host of supporters and well-wishers, including Culture Clash, Tierra and former Doors drummer John Densmore reading his poetry. More about the benefit later.

Meanwhile, in today’s program, Rodriguez shares the bill with two Filipina authors, hip-hop poet Melinda Corazon Foley performing “Second Chances,” and Alfie Ebojo with the brief “A Love Letter to Los Angeles.” After the readings, meet the authors, sip complimentary wine and dig the sounds of Cartaya, which director-bassist Oskar Cartaya describes as “a mixture of Latin fire with jazz harmony, rock attitude and hip-hop freshness.” The band is an underappreciated jewel of the local Latin jazz scene.

“Notes of a Bald Cricket,” “Second Chances” and “A Love Letter to Los Angeles,” today at 1 p.m., Inside the Ford, John Anson Ford Theatre Complex, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Tickets $5. (323) 461-3673, www.fordamphitheater.org.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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