MIAMI — “I’ve never been in fashion. I’ve been present but not fashionable,” confesses Frank Delgado to this reporter, who “snuck in” during a Mega TV program to interview him. The reason for his presence here? The promotion of a tour through several U.S. cities that began Sept. 5 in Miami.
The program is over and some in the studio hang around, humming his songs. An exponent of Cuba’s Nueva Trova, Delgado agrees to talk about some ideas that were, are and will continue to be themes of inspiration for his music.
Sitting in one of the studio sets, as if we had been guests in the program just ended, we skip the protocol and go right into our dialogue.
Maylín Legañoa: Do you consider yourself a contentious singer/composer or simply a narrator of real stories who tells them from the music staff?
Frank Delgado: I didn’t know about being “contentious.” I heard that word for the first time after I had been a troubadour for a while, and I liked it very much. In my days, when a child was disrespectful we called him “lippy.” I like “contentious” but I really don’t aim to be. I don’t write songs to be contentious; I write songs that might be contentious, but I don’t mean to be that way.
ML: Much has been said recently of cultural exchange. People here say that, if musicians living in the United States cannot go to Cuba, there is no exchange. People over there think that that’s the only way to at least attempt a brotherly relationship through the arts, music, culture in general. What is Frank Delgado’s opinion?
FD: It has always been said that many American artists have gone to Cuba. But many of [the Cuban artists] who come here don’t work for the English-speaking public. We work for the Latin and Cuban communities, which are very important in Miami and to which we are all linked, because many ties unite us.
Same as Cuba has its idols, the Cuban community in the U.S. has its idols. There are people who are very important to the Cuban community, such as Willy Chirino, Celia Cruz, the Estefans, Amaury Gutiérrez, and so on, who have not gone to Cuba, so the feeling is that a truly symmetrical exchange does not exist.
There is a kind of asymmetry in the exchange, because many of the living figures in Cuban culture are coming to perform in Miami yet the living figures in Miamian culture are not going to Havana to perform.
ML: What does Frank think about that?
FD: I said it in 2012, in an interview: you can count on me to be a voice that defends that type of exchange. I am not afraid. Whoever wants go to Cuba should go; whoever feels like going. It would be nice if they went without preconditions, wouldn’t it?
Generally, Cubans who come here set no conditions for their stay in Miami. No conditions are demanded. I would like to see an exchange where they are not asked to make concessions, where [their visit] is a personal thing.
I know that there are people who say that they can go there to sing, but set conditions to go. That’s what I find difficult to do.
Right now, for the Leo Brouwer Festival, after a big tussle, we managed to bring Pancho Céspedes to play in Cuba; we managed to get Isaac Delgado to play again in Cuba. I love that kind of thing. No big deal.
Cuba remains Cuba and Miami remains Miami. I do believe that the “boundaries thing” has disappeared in Miami.
ML: You’ve been described as being an exponent of one shore or the other. Maybe because of that, came the creation of the song “The Other Shore.” Do you think that someday a bridge will be built to join both shores?
FD: I believe so. Cuba remains a country that generates culture, and many of the cultural signs of this community are in Cuba. Same as the Dominican community, which has its roots in the Dominican Republic, though the children grew up in New York.
So, I think that Cuba, because it is an island, because it is isolated in that sense, is very creative with its culture. People are always listening to music created in Cuba. Likewise, we have heard a lot of music that was created in Miami. But Cuba is like the foundation, like the mother lode.
There’s always going to be many artists who emerge in Cuba, begin their careers in Cuba and later come here — or their music is heard here.
I believe that, yes, we have built bridges and things have changed a lot. Pancho going to Havana to sing, or Isaac singing there, or Descemer Bueno living in both places — all that is normal, that’s what should happen.
If I were a culture functionary and could make political decisions, I would have done away with those distinctions a long time ago.
ML: Do you think that those are the changes being talked about, the changes that Cuba is betting on? Do you think that Cuba is really changing?
FD: I think that Cuba IS changing, but it needs to take some further steps. New developments have taken place. It became normal for Cubans who lived in Cuba to come here and take part in television programs that sometimes were political. And nothing happened.
In the past, I don’t know what would have happened in Cuba. Nothing has happened. The people come here and are honest with themselves. I’ve come here three times and have never said what I don’t say in Cuba.
I just ran into two musicians who played with me until recently, and I’m happy to see them here, to know that they’re on their way, because they are folks who had a very difficult time [in Cuba] with housing and a million other things. They’re economic emigrants.
One of them lived with his entire family in one little room in the Cerro district. He didn’t spend his whole life like that and had no possibility to change it. He came here and I’m very happy for him. Moreover, if he hadn’t come, I would have pushed him to do so because, the way things were, he couldn’t get ahead in Cuba. Those people are not enemies of Cuba or me or anybody else.
ML: You’re going to appear before a very diverse audience. The new immigrants as well as people who have spent many years here, who know your work and maybe never saw Miami as a frontier. How do you think they’ll greet you? What do you expect from them?
FD: I was here in 2010, when we gave a concert for 500 people. To that concert came people who came in the 1960s, others who came in the Mariel boatlift, others who emigrated a while later and others who had recently arrived. Everything and everybody.
But most of them were people who knew me back in 2000, in the 1990s, and have my records, because you can buy them in some places. Music travels a lot nowadays and you can find it anywhere. I’ve never been in fashion; I’ve been present but not fashionable. And I like to be present.
I’d like to think that the new people who have arrived recently are interested in seeing me and remembering what we did. And they want to hear the new things, too.
With that assurance, and happy to share his opinions with Progreso Semanal, which he reads regularly, Delgado ends the dialogue. He will be at The Place of Miami on Sept. 19; Dos Gardenias in Tampa on Sept. 13; Kentucky on Sept. 27. Still to be confirmed are shows in Miami’s Vedado Social Club and Havana 1957 next October. Here’s your chance to share good music and moving lyrics with a touch of humor — all 100 percent Cuban.