Issac Delgado
Salsa singer

Issac Delgado is a friendly man of gentle manners. And with more than a sixteen albums to his name and a career spanning over three decades, he is nothing of a short of a salsa superstar in Cuba and the wider Latin world.  

Nicknamed “El Chévere de la Salsa”, Issac credits his success to his ability to connect with his audience and make music “for the people”— something that really counts when it comes to popular danceable genres like salsa. “You have to touch neuralgic points of everyday life and chronicle urban living and use popular sayings,” he explains. There’s nothing contrived about such an endeavor for Issac: “Most people in this genre are from below—from the street, from the community.” 

A native of the town of Buena Vista—“not exactly social club”—, Issac recounts a very musical upbringing in a home where Celeste Mendoza, Meme Solís, José Antonio Méndez or César Portillo de la Luz would drop by to visit his mom, a singer and dancer who was once part of the famous 1950s ensemble Las Mulatas de Fuego. “I didn’t realize it when I was small, but now I know how many personalities, how many people I had the privilege to meet,” he says. 

Encouraged by his family to pursue a music career, he took up violoncello at the conservatory. He eventually left music school to study Physical Education and became a soccer coach: “I saw an artist’s life from up close—nightlife was very intense and I wasn’t very prone to long nights,” he says. “But music is something that you carry in your blood.” 

Circa 1978, one of his friends from the conservatory— the now prominent pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba— called him up and asked him to be part of the group Proyecto.  It was a casual affair and they would rehearse at the conservatory and play at student gigs. Later on, Issac was invited to join the Pancho Alonso’s orchestra and he performed at some of Havana’s most prestigious cabarets. In 1987, he joined NG La Banda—an offshoot of Irakere that is believed to be at the source of the Cuban timba movement. “We did an album called NG La Banda en la calle that left its footprint on the Cuban and international public. From that point, people began to know Issac Delgado,” he says. 

Although the music industry has been shaken up by new forms of consumption, Issac remains calm. “People own everything digitally and it’s very difficult to sell albums. However, there are still collectors and those of us who make this type of music are very lucky to have a loyal fan base that continues to buy albums,” he remarks. And, of course, the live concert experience is central to a man of salsa like Issac:  “The best way of taking a track to an album is to play it. That’s when you begin to improve it.” 

When we ask Issac whether he thinks that reggaeton could oust timba and other traditional rhythms from Cuban dance floors, he explains that there’s room for both: “The new generations have every right to listen to reggaeton. But when you reach a certain age…Thirty-somethings no longer dance reggaeton; they dance to authentic music.” He also defends the musical integrity of reggaeton: “I think in Cuba reggaeton has surpassed a musical barrier. It used to be that it was computer engineers making reggaeton; now it’s the kids from the art schools. So it has incorporated harmonic and rhythmic elements of Cuban music.” Proving his respect and appreciation for this genre, Issac recorded the track “Somos Cuba” with the island’s best-known cubatón group, Gente de Zona.

The past few months have been filled with reencounters for Issac. After an eight-year hiatus from Cuban stages and radio waves following his move to the United States, he has returned to Cuba, first invited by other artists Silvio Rodríguez and Carlos Varela, and then on his own. “I have a performance coming up at La Tropical,” he says. “It’s been a while since I’ve played there and it’s a sort of popular thermometer.” He also speaks of playing in the provinces: “Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, Cienfuegos…These are the cities, the people that put me on the map. I owe it to them, who have seen me grow, to give them my art and music.” 

In May 2014, Issac was looking forward to going on a European tour with his musicians straight from Havana. “I have played with excellent musicians in Europe from many countries,” he says. “But being reunited with the musicians that I had worked with and with whom I had not shared the stage in a long time…That has really moved me.” In 2015, he will celebrate his orchestra’s 25th anniversary with a special show. And there’s also talk of collaboration with Venezuelan musicians (Guaco, the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphonic Orchestra…) and of a new record. “I’m doing so many things at once,” he says. “I just hope that I will have the time and health to do it all.”