Three Decades and Still Swinging:
Issac Delgado Celebrates Lluvia y Fuego
August 1, 2019 | by Rebeca Mauleón
Cuban salsa giant Issac Delgado returns to SFJAZZ for the first time in nearly a decade, making his SFJAZZ Center debut (8/15-18) with music from his new album Lluvia y Fuego. Rebeca Mauleón, SFJAZZ Director of Education, traces his lauded career and influence.
That velvety sound stopped me in my tracks. It was sometime in the late 80s, and I had gathered with a few musical colleagues to listen to the latest recordings coming from Cuba. Who was this suave, debonair singer who dared to defy the norm with such grace? As if unphased by his fellow bandmates and their adherence to the more aggressive, often strident texture common to Cuban salsa singing, this vocalist was entirely unique, giving his listeners a gentle caress even as we gyrated to the pulsating grooves emanating from the speakers. Fast-forward to 1990, when I finally had the opportunity to meet—and hear—him in person, I was convinced that this man was destined to be one of Cuba’s greatest living singers. Issac Delgado was, at that time, still part of cutting-edge group N.G. La Banda, an experiment in genre-bending rhythmical frenzy laced with jazz harmonies, pounding basslines, and funk-inspired breakdowns. Even his dance moves were smooth, and nowhere near as flashy or explicit as I had seen on virtually every stage since my arrival to the island. He just wouldn’t go there, and that was just fine. The following year, Delgado broke out on his own, forming one of the top dance bands of the early 90s while creating his own spin on the newly-annointed craze known as timba.
With the foundations laid by super-group Irakere back in the 1970s, N.G. La Banda had taken a more daring approach to popular music in the wake of Cuba’s Special Period in the 90s, emerging from the machinations of some of the island’s most influential artists, including piano giant Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and flautist and composer José Luís Cortés, aka, “El Tosco.” Delgado was plucked at the ripe age of 18 to record with Rubalcaba in his Grupo Proyecto, leading to a lifelong friendship and several future collaborations. By age 21, Issac joined Pachito Alonso’s band, but it would be his tenure with N.G. La Banda beginning in the late 80s that would cement his popularity both on and off the island. N.G. (an abbreviation for nueva generación or “new generation”), burst on the scene and quickly vied for position next to Los Van Van as most popular dance band in Havana. Only in his 20s, Issac was playing and touring with one of Cuba’s game-changing ensembles, and was a year away from recording his first solo album (Dando la Hora in 1991). However, Delgado’s approach would prove to be a challenge to the trendy and more aggressive timba sound, leading to the Cuban public’s recognition of the word “salsa” after decades of controversy. While many Cubans viewed the commercialization of their music as antithetical to post-revolutionary ideology, Issac and his fellow bandmates reclaimed and reframed it, defiantly marking their new style as “salsa cubana.”
With several chart-topping hits and growing popularity in Cuba and beyond, in 1995 Delgado joined the few elite Cuban bandleaders signed to foreign record labels, paving the way for markedly different opportunities. He would continue to straddle the line between those modern influences that had clearly shaped him, and the commercial salsa aesthetic that welcomed him with open arms. Subsequent collaborations with Puerto Rican and New York-based superstars such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, La India and others, cemented Delgado’s status as one of Cuba’s “leading men” in popular music. Into the new millennium, Issac made the decision to move to the U.S., embarking on a fairly prolific recording and touring schedule, but several years later (in 2013), he returned to his homeland. The fortuitous timing provided renewed opportunities to reconnect with his fellow compatriots, many of whom had also recently returned after long stints abroad. They all appear to have had the same thing in mind: they wanted to create their art in their collective homeland. And despite seemingly limited commercial opportunities in light of the island’s ongoing economic challenges, Delgado developed a foothold in Cuba’s burgeoning timba and reggaetón scenes, while maintaining his status as the island’s most respected salsero (salsa ambassador).
2019 marks the release of Delgado’s 16th studio album (with Lluvia y Fuego), his nearly 3 decades as a bandleader, and his first-ever appearance at the SFJAZZ Center. Interviewed recently for a popular Cuban website, Issac says of this newest recording that it “was made with love.” A mix of Cuba’s infectious rhythms, tributes to iconic crooners Benny Moré and Cheo Feliciano, sparklingly crisp arrangements (including one penned by Delgado’s son Issac Jr), and guest appearances by Gilberto Santa Rosa, Alexander Abreu, Pedrito Martínez and Alain Pérez, the recording is a blueprint of the classic Issac Delgado sound: highly melodic and lyrical, with plenty of catchy hooks and electrifying grooves to keep you moving. There are sure to be plenty of fireworks on stage as well as on the dance floor in the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium, and anyone who loves Cuban music, salsa, Latin jazz, or anything in between will not want to miss this.
From his most recent recording, Lluvia y Fuego, strolling and swaying back in time to the late 1980s, enjoy this sampling of Issac Delgado’s many hits: