“L.A. embraces Cuban artists”

Sun Sentinel Miami – Tuesday, September 11th 2001

L.A. embraces Cuban artists

By David Cázares Staff Writer

Issac Delgado walks into the lobby of the Beverly Hilton a step slower than he normally might.

Delgado, one of Cuba’s most popular and best-known bandleaders, is tired, and he has a headache. But he graciously consents to an interview because the door to widespread media exposure in the United States is open unusually wide.

Hours before the second Latin Grammys is set to air tonight on CBS, he has the chance to be like other Latin musicians visiting the United States — in demand.

“The history of radio and television in the United States is that they never play our records,” said Delgado, who is nominated for two awards. “It’s as if we don’t exist. But for the people in the music industry, we’ve always been there. Cubans have been on the outside, but they have made important contributions in music. The recognition from the academy is a way of acknowledging that.”

Their supporters in the music industry say the Latin Grammys nominations for the island’s performers and the possibilities that they could win represent a huge victory against the forces in Miami that would exclude them. Opposition from anti-Castro exiles who consider Cuban musicians representatives of the island’s government — and their plans to protest — led Grammys head Michael Greene to move the event from Miami to Los Angeles.

“They’re very humble,” said Elena Peña, a Cuban-American in San Francisco who manages the tours of Cuban bands, including Delgado’s. “It’s great to be recognized, but for them it’s a huge deal. The whole country rejoices.”

In Los Angeles, Cuban music fans are also celebrating. Although the city’s Hispanic population is predominantly Mexican, it is a hotbed of Cuban salsa, and dance clubs are expected to be packed all week by fans flocking to Cuban concerts — the kind of shows that would have been unheard of had the Latin Grammys stayed in Miami.

Delgado, who celebrates his 39th birthday today kicked off the parties Sunday night with a concert at Studio. On Wednesday, his band is booked for a second show at the Hollywood Park Casino, a free concert billed as a thank you to his Los Angeles fans.

Later this week, other Cuban nominees, including the Afro-Cuban group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and the jazz fusion group Irakere are set to perform.

“Los Angeles is a big center of fans for Latin jazz, salsa and Cuban music — big time,” said Raul Fernandez, a Cuban-American professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine who is the curator of the Smithsonian’s upcoming traveling Latin jazz exhibit. “And the people who go listen to Cuban music are mostly Mexicans and Central Americans. Only 10 or 20 percent are Cuban.”

Despite their internationally acclaimed reputations, however, none of the Cuban performers has been deemed ratings-friendly enough by CBS to merit a performance during the show, which will be broadcast live to more than 120 countries.

Delgado and the other Cuban musicians said they are happy just to be at the show.

“We’re here because we’ve been nominated for prizes,” said pianist Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, a past winner of traditional Grammys. “We, like everybody else, should be in everything. There’s room for everybody.”

For Valdés, it doesn’t matter that the show was moved from Miami. Cuban musicians would have gone wherever the prizes were awarded, he said “whether it’s in Miami or on the planet Mercury.”

It wasn’t lost on Delgado, however, that the show was moved because Miami didn’t appear to be the hospitable place the show’s organizers envisioned.

“It would have been in Miami if the environment there had not been so hostile,” said Delgado, who has performed in Miami Beach without incident. “We were supposed to be well received in Miami. That’s what they told us. Then suddenly everything changed.”

Although some Cuban-Americans plan to protest the presence of the Cuban performers outside the Forum today, Cuban bands generally do not have to worry about demonstrations in Los Angeles. After some early token resistance, they have thrived for more than a decade, said Alberto Torres, a Puerto Rican from New York who is promoting Delgado’s concerts.

“There’s an awareness and the openness here,” Torres said. “That’ s the California style of allowing everyone to think what they want to think and be a little bit freer.”

Delgado agreed.

“I feel very comfortable really, with a lot less psychological pressure, now that I’m here in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s not a question of the reception. I think it’s a question of tranquility. No one here is interested in trying to bother us or do us harm.”

As to their chances of winning a Latin Grammy, Delgado said the Cuban musicians didn’t come to Los Angeles expecting to win. But he said the musicians, who routinely perform before tens of thousands in Europe, are interested in reaching other audiences that have long been cut off from them, such as the U.S. market.

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