Sun Sentinel Miami – Friday, September 14th 2001
By David Cázares Staff Writer
A lot of people these days say salsa music is suffering from a state of general mediocrity, as the call-and-response tradition of great soneros has been lost.
In a sense that’s true. Too many singers today are giving us bland, repetitive songs. Too many music companies are more interested in making salseros into pop singers, for profit’s sake, than making music with soul.
But the future is not lost. The world’s most innovative singers are showing what can be done with salsa when it remains faithful to its artful past while also incorporating new rhythms and styles that keep the music connected to dancers.
For me, one of today’s best is Cuban bandleader Issac Delgado. His latest album, La Formula on Ahi Nama Music, fuses traditional Afro-Cuban dance music with funk, jazz and the fiery contemporary Cuban style called timba. This is the contemporary genre full of pulsating rhythms, roaring vocals and rapid changes.
The album, which includes sly touches of pop and features jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba on 10 of its 15 tracks, is Delgado’s most ambitious project yet.
The 39-year-old singer, who was trained at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, puts his entire musical education to work. He stretches from the sounds of filin (the American-influenced reworking of the traditional Cuban folk music called trova) to the Afro-Cuban styles of son, rumba, mambo and bomba. His songs are musical suites that rely on sophisticated arrangements, emotion and a smooth and expressive delivery. This is the kind of talent long displayed by the singers Delgado admires, among them Puerto Rican legends Ismael Rivera and Cheo Feliciano.
“They are voices of humanity, very profound singers,” Delgado said recently of his influences. It is that same humanity we hear on Delgado’s recordings, full of stories about everyday life and heartbreak. But he is without the artistic restrictions the labels impose on the salsa singers we hear on Spanish-language radio. Thus, Delgado has reached a point in his career when his music could easily appeal to a variety of popular tastes, without losing its essence.
He shows this perhaps most clearly on El Solar de La California, a song co-written by Juan Formell, director of Los Van Van, that samples a sliver of melody from the Eagles’ Hotel California. The song talks about a dance hall called the California in a Havana neighborhood long frequented by musicians, a place where one has to walk the streets to understand where the music is coming from.
Delgado also includes his version of La Vida Es Un Carnaval (Life Is a Carnival), which has been recorded by Celia Cruz.
In concert, his 14-member band is a powerful backdrop to his cool delivery, with thundering percussion and brass, serving up large doses of timba, the music many people have prematurely written off.
Whatever happens to contemporary Cuban music, Delgado will be around for a long time. With beautiful melodies, smart phrasing and superior musicianship, he has shown the world that salsa music is alive and well, if only its proponents would take it somewhere, as he has.