Abel Delgado conducts an in-depth interview with the much respected Cuban vocalist, Issac Delgado.
Interview by Abel Delgado (Abel_Delgado@descarga.com)
Issac Delgado is one of the best contemporary Cuban singers out there. Getting his start with Pacho Alonso and later NG la Banda, he represents a curious bridge between hard-core Cuban dance music and the smoother salsa played in the United States, Puerto Rico and Latin America. We called him at his house in Cuba in November 2001 to learn more about his career, breakout CD La fórmula and future plans. Abel Delgado (no relation) did the interview and translation into English and Orlando Fiol did the hard part: transcribing Issac's words that had come through a Cuban phone line with more snap, crackle and pop than Rice Krispies to make sure we got the man's words right. So here it is. If you want to read the Spanish version, click here.
Abel: Well, I'd like to start with your background, where you were born and how you got into music.
Issac: Well, actually my background is that I'm from a musical family. At home there was always a very cultural, musical and artistic environment. And well, through my mother, aunt and brothers...I was lucky enough to learn my first songs, to sing at home and stuff like that. (There was) a highly musical atmosphere with other artists that visited my home and whatnot. I never thought that this would be where I'd end up career-wise, because I actually was really into sports.
Abel: And who in your family were musicians? Were they professionals or amateurs?
Issac: My mother was one of the Mulatas del Fuego, which was a dance group that caused a sensation on the island. And, well, her first marriage was to Angelito Díaz. The fílin movement was created at Angelito Díaz's house. And that, I think, has been the most important influence I've had on my career. The fílin movement is the movement of the bolero songs created by José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo, who are friends of my mother. And I was raised on those songs and through them I've gotten involved in this (musical) world.
Abel: You referred to someone but it wasn't very clear, so sorry, but I'll have to ask you again. Your mother was married to one of the creators of fílin. Who was this person? Because I heard Ángel but I didn't catch the rest of the name.
Issac: Ángel Díaz. Fílin was created in Hamel Alley...at Angelito Díaz's house.
[Editor's Note: Hamel Alley or el Callejón de Hamel is a street in central Havana that features a lot of cultural activities, like art exhibits, and on Sundays, El Domingo de la Rumba, in which rumba groups come and play.]
Abel: Ángel Díaz...I don't recognize that name. From the fílin movement I know José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo de la Luz but not Ángel Díaz. What instrument did he play? Because I don't know that figure.
Issac: Well look, Ángel Díaz, it was in his house where the fílin movement was created. He's the author of songs like, "La rosa mustia," for instance. That's one of the memorable songs of fílin. (He) played the guitar; he's one of the living legends of the fílin movement. The essence of the fílin movement was comprised by César Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez, Angelito Díaz and there's also Marta Valdés as an integral member; essentially, there's a series of people who were the originators of that movement, which wasn't that big but was very important for the creators that came after, for nueva trova, for all those people who lived in the years after the fílin movement in Cuba (like) Frank Domínguez. All those people got together at Angelito Díaz's house at Hamel alley.
Abel: Of course, that's where they have the Domingo de la Rumba, over at Hamel Alley; that's in downtown Havana, right?
Issac: Yeah, but the rumba they have now is an element that was added to the alley. But what distinguishes that alley is that it's there that the fílin movement was created.
Abel: And the fílin movement is characterized as a combination of elements of jazz and bolero, right?
Issac: Exactly, exactly. It was a movement of trovadores that had the trova traditional of their fathers and started to listen to jazz, Brazilian music, that is, bossa nova jazz...(They created) songs that are still alive today because there are songs by César Portillo de la Luz on the previous CDs of Luis Miguel and now in his new CD I think he has songs by Frank Domínguez, for instance. That is to say, these are songs that haven't died, it's that they (the creators of fílin) made songs that will live forever.
Abel: So you started with the influence of that musical movement and your mother sang with the Mulatas del Fuego.
Abel: And that was a group like el Cuarteto D'Aida, right? It was a group of 4 or 5 women that sang, right?
Issac: Yes, there were a lot of mulatas that were in that group but my mother was one of the four founding members. After that, lots of people were in that group, even Elena...Omara was also in the group, it was a group that worked with the superstars in Cuba. But their forté was more dancing, understand? They sang, but it all was based on their dancing.
[Editor's Note: Elena is Elena Burke, one of Cuba's top bolero singers. Omara is Omara Portoundo, another famous bolero singer and sonera.]
Abel: Now, you tell me that you didn't think you were going to be a musician and that you were more inclined towards sports. So what kind of sport were you into? In other words, what did you think you were going to be if you hadn't become a singer?
Issac: I played soccer and, actually, in a country where everybody's a baseball player, it's not that difficult a discipline.
Abel: And when was it when you started to join groups and such? About how old were you and what groups did you join?
Issac: I actually started in 70-something, like '77 or '78, because of the friendship I had with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I started working with a bunch of projects. It wasn't until '83 that I got a professional education through Pacho Alonso's group; he was one of Cuba's great singers.
Through his band I became a professional musician through and through and later I started working with his son Pachito. And from there, later on, I was working at the Tropicana as a soloist in the Tropicana cabaret show. I worked as soloist in the Riviera's Copa Room show and then, after a Tropicana musical revue tour in '87, I joined NG la Banda, which actually was the band that made me famous in Cuba and later internationally.
[Editor's Notes: Gonzalo Rubalcaba is a fine Latin jazz pianist who has recorded several albums and currently lives in the United States. He was the producer of Issac's first two albums. The Copa Room is a cabaret in the Hotel Riviera that features live music, sometimes the top Cuban bands. For a time it was called El Palacio de la Salsa and is now back to being called the Copa Room.]
Abel: How did you join NG?
Issac: Well, with NG what happened is that I went to sub for Tony Calá because Tony had been hospitalized for some problems, I think it was the flu; I'm not sure what he had. It was at a place they were working at in El Vedado. I rehearsed some numbers with them and started working with them to fill Tony's place for a couple of weeks. And when Tony came back, they asked me to join the group. And so then we started looking at the tunes I wanted to sing, etcetera.
Abel: And do you think that NG started some changes in Cuban music? Because their music seems to have been pretty influential on the modern groups in Cuba today, and it was something different than what was being played when they first started, as far as I can tell when I compare (NG) to Los Karachi and Van Van, for instance.
Issac: Well, if you compare them to those groups, yes, but you have to understand that NG was an offshoot of Irakere. That the whole cast of Irakere, almost the whole cast, was in NG la Banda: Germán Velásquez, Carlos Averhoff, Juan Munguía, José Luis Cortés y José Miguel Greco. Those five were from Irakere. I think Irakere was the base that NG used to make another kind of music, maybe a bit more danceable than Irakere's direction, which was more for concerts, okay? But using the same elements. It wasn't a new invention but rather a bit was taken from Irakere and that was transformed into NG la Banda, which had a little bit more luck, than say, Opus 13...(which) was doing a similar kind of music. So I think we were successful because of the song selection and because people liked us a lot.
Abel: When you started singing, well, you were singing with Pacho Alonso and then with Tropicana and all those other different groups. Who were the singers that influenced you?
Issac: I always had a lot of influences. In the first place, the biggest influence was Cheo Feliciano and Rubén Blades; I think those were the people I listened to most in doing this kind of music. I told you before I had the fílin influence, but I think that for singing popular dance music, Afro-Cuban music, I think I liked listening to Rubén and Cheo more than anybody. Later I started studying the greats like Beny Moré, Miguelito Cuní and others like Pacho Alonso also influenced me but I already had the big influence of...
Abel: Rubén Blades and Cheo.
Issac: Of those two, yes.
Abel: In your records one can see that you know several genres of Cuban music; in particular, one song that struck me over the years always has been "Los Sitios entero" with NG La Banda, simply because I liked the switch to rumba in the song, the way the different genres were integrated. In terms of rumba, to learn that genre, did you participate in lots of street rumba or was it something you picked up from the environment?
[Editor's note: This song was featured on the second NG La Banda album called No se puede tapar el sol back when records still existed. It's now available in different compilations of NG la Banda material. The song itself refers to rough Havana neighborhoods famous for their rumba players, like Jesús María, Belén and Los Sitios.]
Issac: Well, I believe you're born with rumba. And also what happens is, well, I've never said this but Celeste Mendoza was like a sister to my mother. And she used to tell me I was her nephew...Celeste was like family to my mother; they were like sisters and even looked a lot like each other. And besides Celeste, when they started the first Saturday rumbas in Cuba with the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, I never missed one. So I was lucky enough to meet some of the old rumberos that were friends of my mother. Los Papines (also) went to my house to jam, understand? So I'll tell you, it was pretty easy because of the access (I had) to those people. I think that's what allows me to sing that genre.
I recorded that tune in one take at Egrem studios when we recorded and I think that happened because I feel it naturally. "Los Sitios entero" was one of the most important arrangements in today's modern Afro-Cuban music; it's one José Luis Cortés' greatest arrangements. I think it's an example to study in schools. It was a classic modern rumba tune.
[Editor's Note: Celeste Mendoza was a talented Cuban sonera who specialized in singing rumba music and recorded noteworthy albums with Los Papines, another top Cuban rumba group. José Luis Cortés was the leader of NG la Banda. An excellent flute player, he also writes and arranges songs, including "Los Sitios entero" and is leading NG la Banda to this day.]
Abel: And a great mambo that he put on it. It was something completely innovative with the spiral style of jazz, that "pirurururé, pirurururé"...
Issac: What happened was José Luis wrote for all the brass like they were two flutes, you know what I mean? And then with the virtuosity all the brass players in NG la Banda had, they could play with that swing with no problem.
Abel: Well, of course, they were los metales del terror. For them it was no big thing to play that kind of complicated mambo that maybe would have given other trumpet players or saxophonists a bit of trouble. Your first solo project was Dando la hora, which came out in '91 or '92. It was different by comparison to the NG tunes, because they had strong numbers like "Los Sitios entero" and in Dando la hora the songs had a style more like salsa romántica. But what's most interesting to me about this record is the fact that you didn't use horns, you used synthesizers. Why did you decide not to use horns in that first record?
[Editor's Note: "Los metales del terror" or, idiomatically translated, the terrifying brass section, was the nickname given to NG La Banda's horn players because of their skills.]
Issac: We didn't have enough money for brass. I think that was the first salsa record made in 1991 with scrap tracks. That is to say, we prepared horn scrap tracks and we put it all in the computer, understand? And I think back then nobody thought you could do that with salsa and Cuban music. It was an innovation and we didn't know it because we were saving money because we had to hire five horn players and didn't have enough money. And so we said "Well, let's see how we can save as much as we can." That was a low-budget, big heart production with top-flight arrangements and musicians playing on it.
Abel: Well, by the time Con ganas, the next album, came out, you had money for horn players, right? Because you clearly hear the horn players, so it looks like things improved.
Issac: Of course, things did get better. That (first) record helped me make the Con ganas record in Venezuela but with horns...we took the horn players who were working with me. But there was already a budget to make a record more decently, although it all was done decently, even the first one, only more cost-effectively.
Abel: That second record also represented a change for you from the artistic standpoint because the first one, Dando la hora, had more or less salsa romántica tunes, but in the second one you worked in some rumba with "Dime tú que lo sabes" and even Nueva Trova elements like the song "Son de Cuba para Puerto Rico" by Pablito Milanés. Was that your idea, or yours in collaboration with Gonzalo, to expand by singing different genres in that record?
Issac: Let me tell you, if you trace my work, I've always had fílin influences, trova influences, and in the first record, Dando la hora, there are Pablo Milanés songs, three songs by Pablo Milanés. There are also two songs by Pedro Luis Ferrer. (Both) are extremely important exponents of this music (trova). It's a record that has only eight tunes and more than 70 percent of that record is trovafied salsa...because I always wanted to use (trova) that way. That's a bit of my personal taste standing out, because I like those kind of lyrics, those kinds of songs. Then when I made Con ganas...people didn't want the same stuff I did with NG but did want me to have harder-edged numbers for dances, for the street, with a bit more brass. It was done with brass and I added the kind of songs I had done in Dando la hora and I also incorporated songs like "Dime tú que lo sabes."
I always feel the rumba complex present in my work because these are things that live with me; it's not something I think about. Actually, in my productions, I've been the one who's picked the songs, thank God, although the musicians have also contributed some very interesting ideas. I think that Gonzalo always has been a vital point in my work, in our lives. We're more than friends. We're family, we're brothers and so, well, I listen to his advice closely, although he's always believed in me when it comes to picking and singing songs...that is to say, the people around me have always had that confidence. I believe that Giraldo Piloto is also (among those people). We had already worked together in NG la Banda. I was one of the first ones who believed in Piloto's songs when he was in NG la Banda and later when he came to my band, I also did Piloto's tunes, which worked well for us. I think that for me, Con ganas was my best seller (and also) my thesis work to enter the (international) music market. I've always wanted to have an important relationship between the music played in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, New York and Cuban music.
[Editor's Notes: Pablito Milanés is a famous Cuban singer-songwriter who does Nueva Trova, guitar-based music with varied instrumentation that generally has well-written, poetic lyrics about love and, sometimes, politics. Issac is not the first salsero to cover Milanés' songs. La Sonora Ponceña, Tony Vega and other salsa groups have done Milanés' songs, generally as salsa romántica. Giraldo Piloto was the drummer for NG la Banda and later joined Issac's group, where he played and contributed songs. He later left to form Klimax and has written songs for a number of modern groups in Cuba, including la Charanga Habanera and Bamboleo.]
Abel: With the album Con ganas, it looks like you got a little famous internationally, that is, outside of Cuba, and started recording for RMM. A change is observed in the style of the recordings if you compare Con ganas to Otra idea and La primera noche. What caused that kind of musical change that took place with those albums after Con ganas?
Issac: At some point people thought that there really was an interest on the part of the record company for me to get into the international market, which is logical, because independent of whether or not you make exciting music, they want to sell records. And so we made some attempts to fuse with some musicians from over there, changing the sound we had a little. But it didn't change the group and I think that the changes weren't too radical from my point of view. But people did notice that there was something, some order from RMM for me to do some songs...it was another time; it wasn't my thing entirely as a producer but rather there were lots of people (involved). Isidro Infante was involved, there were (also) other talented artists from the world of international Latin music
We made three records with RMM: El año que viene, Otra idea and La primera noche; three different records but with an international air. The first with many aspects (of the style) of Víctor Mendoza with his Venezuelan sound, the second with a combination effort we made with the people from New York and the other we did in Spain, but thinking of all the things going on there, changing tonalities, adding a guitar, an acoustic bass...That is to say, there were lots of elements. I think those were elements of what was happening at that time, of trying to get into the market, in the public's ears more easily without losing the "Cubanness."
Abel: Still, it seems like you changed again with the album called Exclusivo para Cuba (note: this album was called Rareties in the United States), that had a more Cuban style with songs like "Se te va la mano" and "Pa' que te salves," etcetera.
Issac: That wasn't a change, because actually, while you want to get into the international market, at the same time here in Cuba people were asking for something else because there was another movement inside Cuba, the so-called "timba cubana" (that had) lots of energy with the choruses, the song lyrics were more urban, very much ours, very local. And so I said: "Well, I'm going to make a record that has those ingredients," since I already was performing with those numbers here in Cuba. It was essential to have those kinds of songs (when playing at) dances.
[Editor's Note: "Timba" is the name sometimes used to describe modern dance music in Cuba. Some of the main characteristics of it include the piano montunos, which are usually longer and more intricate than those used in salsa, using drums and timbales to drive the rhythm instead of just timbales and the lyrics, which generally refer to life in Cuba or use specific Cuban slang and sayings. For instance, Issac's song "Se te va la mano" uses the slang phrase "se te va la musa" in the chorus, which means, more or less, "you messed up."]
Abel: So, on one hand, you were marketing your music and changing it in a certain sense to expand, but at the same time there was the pressure from the audience in Cuba because you had to please them too with songs more in the modern Cuban style. That's interesting because if you notice, people like salsa romántica a lot in Cuba But I think that although it's popular and people like songs like Víctor Manuelle's and such, it looks like at the same time that public doesn't expect that style of music from its Cuban artists. They want something with a little more power, with a more Cuban style, right?
Issac: Well, what happens is that the Cuban dancer is too demanding with us, and it's true what you say, that they demand from us; they always expect that there will be some of this. It's true. And almost all of us have gotten used to the fact that although we make a regular record...we have to think about our people and record three or four tunes that will keep us popular.
Abel: Exclusivo para Cuba was with a Cuban label, right? At the same time you were recording with RMM or not?
Issac: Actually, we did that album at the same time, although later RMM licensed that record and brought it out with another name in the international market: they called it Rareties. But what happened with that record...at that time, it's that that record really was exclusively for Cuba, it was only for the Cuban territory. We weren't going to market it outside Cuba and later RMM licensed it because they didn't want us to have another record out there that people would come to Cuba, buy and leave with; also, people started to ask the company about that record...Afterwards I did La primera noche... We had a conversation with Rafi and he understood that I should, that we should think about another kind of music to do. I wanted to make a "free" album with no pressure to make something specifically for the market and then the CD Malecón came out. We made Malecón without a label, understand? We did it here in Cuba with our own money and we went into the studio to record what we wanted to without thinking we'd have to do a recording for a specific record company later. So these records came out at different times with different record companies.
[Editor's Notes: Apparently, what Issac is saying is that he recorded the album Exclusivo para Cuba while under contract to RMM. This album was to be for the Cuban public only, hence the title, which means Exclusively for Cuba. Issac seems to be alluding to the fact that people travelled to Cuba and bought the album and brought it back with them. This interest seems to have sparked RMM to license it and distribute it in the United States under the name Rareties. La primera noche is Issac's last RMM recording, which came out in 1998. Rafi is Ralph Mercado, the owner of RMM. Malecón is the Cuban title of Issac's latest recording, which he apparently financed and produced himself while not under contract to a specific label.]
Abel: So it was marketed in Cuba under one name (Malecón) and later was marketed in the United States ad outside of the United States in Latin America with the title La formula, right?
Issac: Exactly. Well, the original idea was (calling) the record Malecón because you know that for us Cubans...el Malecón is one of our important symbols. And on the Malecón you see many things and that record also has many life experiences, many themes and I think it's a Malecón of things. From there on the Malecón, we were looking back at all of our work of all these past years, we were celebrating my group's ten-year anniversary from '91 to 2001 And coincidentally it was the 100th anniversary of the Malecón. So the Malecón was turning 100 in 2001 and we made it then, it was almost a tribute though we didn't plan it that way. It was a coincidence.
I'm very pleased with this album. It's been my best-selling record in this country and I'm happy. I think it was worth making the effort we made in making this CD. It also brought us a lot of joy because it was also nominated for a Latin Grammy....And, well, it was a reunion of musicians who for years hadn't worked together very much. I went and called Gonzalo, like always Gonzalo was here. José Mendoza worked from Venezuela, that is to say, a group of us got together. And for the first time I worked with an arranger like Juan Manuel Ceruto who's an excellent musician, recognized as such for a long time; he was the leader of Opus 13. And I think a lot of things have worked to make sure Malecón had all the ingredients people liked.
[Editor's Notes: José Mendoza was the engineer who mixed the CD and Juan Manuel Ceruto is a composer, arranger and saxophone player. For years he was the musical director of Paulo FG y su Elite and arranged many of Paulito's big hits. He and Paulo were both in the group Opus 13, a fine dance band from the late 80s. This group later became the "elite", Paulo FG's band, after he left the group in 1992.]
Abel: And the interesting thing is that in that record you really didn't change your style, in other words, it was more like the style of Exclusivo para Cuba. You didn't try to achieve the commercial balance from before. Because there are numbers with lyrics that you have to have been raised in Cuba to understand. Still, you had more international success with your own style.
Issac: Yes, it's something paradoxical and incredible , isn't it? Sometimes you do a recording thinking one thing and something else comes out. It's that music is like baseball, the ball comes in a square box. It's round and comes in a square box. You never know what's going to happen with a record. We actually did it to do a good job musically without having a pattern of a certain type of music in mind.
Abel: Now I have a few specific questions about the tunes on that record because some of them are things that strike me as curious and maybe people didn't understand them, either. So I'm going to ask you about "El solar de la California." What in particular inspired that number? What are they talking about in that song?
Issac: Well, look, around two years ago, Juan Formell wrote me the chorus to that song. He had promised me that he was going to write me a song and he had shown me the chorus: "Voy contigo al solar de la California de la calle Crespo bitwin San Lázaro y Colón." When he did this, every time I ran into him, I was always asking him: "Did you finish the song for me?" And he never finished it for me, but since I'm an admirer of Los Van Van, of Juan Formell and his work, and I've studied it a lot, I told him: "Well, if you let me, I'll do the song and you give me the chorus." So I went to his house and he recorded the chorus for me. I did the song because in Cuba there's a solar, the California solar; it's a solar where Chano Pozo used to jam. But logically, a lot of people live in that solar, and there are a lot of things there and, actually, I think it's a snapshot of Havana. It's also a tribute I do to Juan Formell in the song because I think he's the best and most complete chronicler in Cuban music.
[Editor's Note: A solar is a place where a lot of poor people live on top of each other, roughly similar to what are called favelas in Brazil. Sometimes a solar can be one long building of one level with several rooms in which many families live or in other cases it can be the ground floor of an old-style colonial mansion. Living conditions are cramped and the conditions are generally unsanitary. Rumba music was often played in solares in Cuba at parties which sometimes ended violently with stabbings.
That said, this is historically how solares have been. I have not been to the solar called "California", which is a real-life solar that Issac is singing about in this tune, so I have no idea what the conditions are like there or what modern-day solares in Cuba are like. Given that even in nice-looking houses in modern Cuba people flush their toilets using buckets of water, my preliminary guess is that contemporary solares would probably not be easily confused with Disneyland.]
Abel: So it started with the chorus and then you went and added the other elements in the song to pay homage to the solar that's on Crespo street between San Lázaro y Colón?
[Editor's Note: Cuban addresses are generally given as street A between streets B and C. So in the song, he's actually telling you exactly where it's at so you can go see it for yourself. But they're not big on having street signs in Cuba, so good luck in finding it.]
Abel: And you're talking about going down 23rd street and that's the "line of fire" (la línea de fuego). What are you talking about there?
Issac: Well, the central street of El Vedado before getting to Central Havana, where the solar de la California is, is 23rd Street. And on 23rd there's Coppelia, the Habana Libre hotel, there's a movie theater, it's the place with the most activity, the heart of Havana. And so to know Havana, whoever doesn't know that little part of L and 23rd streets, well, hasn't been in Cuba, hasn't been in Havana. So from there I created some images, maybe my life experiences or those of other people, maybe, but I created those images so people will know what happens there, even though they'll only get to know a little.
Over there all sorts of stuff happens, understand? Women pass by there when they come from the university, over there people walk, over there...I don't know; it's like saying the center of Broadway in New York; that's our center. And I think that to know Havana you have to know all those little sections. Because of that I created a combination of all those places to get from there on foot to the solar de la California.
[Editor's Note: El Vedado used to be an upper-class neighborhood in Havana. These days, you still see some nice houses there. Coppelia is an ice cream parlor with pretty good ice cream but VERY long lines in the summer. The movie theater is called Yara and shows both Cuban and international, including American, flicks. The whole area is very busy and congested.]
Abel: Okay. I had another question about the song "Malecón". I know that song isn't yours; another composer wrote it. But in it you're talking about "my heart is screaming for Pedro and my grandmother". What are you talking about there? What did the composer want to say with the lyrics of that tune?
Issac: Well, in that tune I wanted to pay a little bit of tribute to many Cubans like him, like the guy who wrote that song, who's a very important Cuban actor, who's one of the best Cuban actors. His name is Alberto Pujol. He's been living in Colombia for the past three years and acting on Colombian TV, and when you're away from your country you miss a lot of things. You miss el Malecón, you miss all the things talked about in the song: a palm tree, you miss a mulata, you miss the things you'd least expect, it's the yearning that you feel for your country and your customs.
I was also living for a year and a half in Spain and I think there was a common ground between us. I was looking for that song. I said, "Well, I'd liked to do a song based on the kind of experience when you're out of the country and missing your grandmother, your friends, your girl." So I think that's part of the storytelling of the song. And well, more than anything, when I learned he had written that song, I went and looked for him. He sang it for me, and from the first moment I heard it, I said "This is my song (for the record.)" Because I knew I could sing it and I could get into the song to express it the way he had.
Abel: In spite of the controversy with the Grammys in Miami, they nominated you for a Grammy and now there seems to be a bit more acceptance of Cuban groups in comparison with a few years back. Do you think the walls are breaking down a bit?
Issac: Ajá, it's possible, it's possible. After the Grammys I haven't had the feeling that I'll be playing there yet. We had some festivals that we canceled because of work problems, because of flight problems to travel. And so we decided to stay here until next year. We're going to go out on tour again. We may tour the United States at the end of May or early June.
And I'll think it'll be an interesting period. There we'll be able to see how this material worked. I think it has worked well because in the places we've played before, people already knew the tunes. I think it's an opening for our endeavors.
And now, with a lot of effort, I'm getting my new record ready. I'm doing two things at once; I'm getting my record and another production ready. This year (2001) I produced a record for Haila, a Cuban singer who was with Bamboleo, then Azúcar Negra. Now she's starting her career as a solo artist and I just finished producing her record. And I'm very happy with the way it came out and I'm going to produce two more records besides mine next year for a series of Cuban artists that I feel deserve a record produced for them.
I don't want to announce it yet until we start recording in March. I'm going to record my new record in February, in March I'm going to record the one for the Cuban artists and I'm also going to produce a record with my family. I want to make a family production of traditional music, trova music and stuff like that. So those are the productions I have in store for next year. Let's see if again I'm lucky enough to hit with the people and that people like our work.
Abel: So, the record for Haila (Haila: a Tribute to Celia Cruz on BIS Records) you produced is the tribute to Celia Cruz?
Issac: Yeah. One way or another I was lucky enough to be in Spain performing with my band and RMM asked me to work with her (Celia Cruz), to accompany her. We did some carnivals in the Canary Islands, we were on some TV shows together in Spain and from there the idea was born. Basically, I picked songs that were really well sung by her, very well interpreted by her, but I think I couldn't have made that record if there wasn't...someone who could do justice to those numbers with the dignity that Haila did. I think that Haila is the best sonera that we currently have in Cuba today. I think she has a new voice, a very crystalline voice like Celia Cruz had when she came out.
Abel: And there was no worry about the comparisons that could be made between Haila and Celia, Celia being the musical icon she is and being so famous?
Issac: No no. I think that when things are done with dignity, with honor, and, most importantly, when they're well sung, very well sung, well, if you know about music...you'll know this was a worthy recording that's not being done to make comparisons, but rather to show that another Celia Cruz was born in Cuba. Understand? There's another.
Abel: With regard to the other singers whose projects you're producing, who are these people you're helping to come to light?
Issac: No man, it's a surprise, honestly, it's a surprise. Right now I'm gathering the songs and music and talking with them and coming to terms with them. So I don't want to reveal it yet, but I think it's going to be a big surprise for all the Latin music audience.
Abel: Cool. And with regard to the new record, are you also in the process of picking the songs and such to start recording in February?
Issac: Exactly, exactly. I have almost all the song selection down; I'm picking to see which ones I keep.
Abel: And with regard to that, I had another question. How do you go about producing a record? How do you pick the numbers, how is that process in which you find the tunes or write them and such? How does all of that work? What's the collaboration like when you produce a record?
Issac: I think what you have to have clear first, is what you want to do. And then from there you get the style of music that you're going to adjust, pick the composers, pick the musicians. Sometimes in companies I think it's different because there you have the producers in charge of that, but in my case, I look for them and start looking for ways to compare similar things to each other to produce a record. From there you start doing the musical arrangements or prepare the scrap tracks.
Abel: And what are the scrap tracks, then, to understand that term well.
Issac: The scrap track is like...sometimes you do a piano part, you put it into the computer and there you pretty much know what you want. Then you do the performance and you add percussion that isn't real but you now have an idea of how the thing will sound. Sometimes you do that, other times, in my case, I don't do scrap tracks very often but sometimes there are tunes in which I do, you do a scrap track because you're still unsure and you want to see how it'll sound in the studio. Although there are arrangers you trust who will give you something good to take to the studio, right? It's good; maybe you'll take something out of it and add something else. But I think in the international music world people work with scrap tracks, that is, you work on it beforehand and then you know how it'll sound when you go into the studio.
Abel: And, of course, before going into the studio you have to rehearse a lot with the group, right?
Issac: Depending on what you do...there are musicians that can sight read in one shot in the studio, but if you want a little more flavor and do it with your band, then you rehearse it beforehand, then tighten it up a little, rehearse, maybe try it with the public. They are really different ways of approaching it.
Abel: So in some cases you premiere numbers with the people before recording them to see how people react and then you can polish them from there?
Issac: Sometimes we've done that.
Abel: And when you record, do you record all together or record one section separate and another section on another track? For instance, the percussion first and then the horns and on top of that the vocals? Or do you record it all together or does it depend on the song?
Issac: Generally, if you want to record really cleanly, you do it in sections. Other times you'll record all together and keep that all-together vibe and clean up a few things. It's also all according to the producer, how he feels, how people interpret it. I think are different variants; in all these aspects of producing a record people have their scripts they follow and you have to slowly try some different ones.
Abel: When you produce a record, which do you prefer, recording in sections or recording all together? What's your approach in this regard?
Issac: Up to now I've recorded in sections. I record by section because I like the sound to be really clean.
Abel: So you're not worried that you'll lose spontaneity in the record or anything like that...
Issac: No, I think that from when you record the base, if it's a good number, people add flavor to it, they put the vibe that you want to achieve from when you start rehearsing the tune with the percussion, the base section. What's essential for me is the rhythm section: piano, bass and percussion, for that to be really tight, afincao, like we say, right? If it has that tightness, well the rest will come out with the flavor you want.
Abel: And another thing, in terms of composing the songs and such, I've also been curious because Cuban songs are different from the ones here because they have multiple choruses instead of one or two like in salsa romántica. The songs become hits because the chorus sticks in people's heads. When you compose, do you start with the chorus or with the initial part of the song and then come up with the chorus? How is that process?
Issac: I think the same thing happens to almost all composers. Sometimes the chorus comes out first and other times you have the main stanzas and can write them and then say "Look, I need a good chorus." It's the mood you're in; maybe sometimes a chorus will come to mind, then another, another and another. But, for example, I told you the chorus was already done for "La California" and then I did the rest. And in other cases you do it backwards.
Abel: So it all depends. And with the guías in the studio, is that something you improvise or you actually have it rehearsed, more or less, before recording?
[Editor's Note: Guías are the phrases the singer sings between the repeating choruses. They are also called soneos or inspiraciones. Tradtionally, they are supposed to be improvised on the spot, the singer creating both a new lyric AND a new melody to go along with it. Only the very best soneros do this.]
Issac: No no no, that definitely is more improvised. I think that with that, in this music, that should be very spontaneous. I think that comes out in the studio.
Abel: So when you go in to record, you really don't have what you're going to say in mind, but rather, when you start getting the flavor of the song, you say...
Issac: Exactly, exactly.
Abel: It's different from the way people work here because I've noticed that some of the salseros from over here write the guías before starting to record and sometimes you lose a bit of the flavor with that approach.
Issac: Most of the time, 90 percent of the time, I come up with them in the studio. We start writing some ideas and then record. It's something that comes out; maybe you'll be hearing the music and while you're working like that, maybe something will come to you. Sometimes some musicians also start singing guias of songs and they come up with interesting things.
Abel: So to finish up, can you tell us a little bit as to whether you have a concept or what the style will be for your new record and when we can expect it?
Issac: Well, I can only tell you upfront that I'm going to make a record of songs by authors of songs that are already well known. That is, I'm not coming to come up with anything new...I'm going to do almost the whole thing with versions of Cuban songs from a period of Cuban music that I feel was very important in my development, in my career. It's going to be a joint effort because New York musicians are coming here to record with me. I think it's going to be a happy encounter because these are people who I've wanted to work with for a long time and I've never worked with them and I'd like to be lucky enough to have them here with me. And, well, supposedly the recording will be in the month of February.
Abel: The month of February. So when will the record come out, springtime, then?
Issac: I think that by summer it'll be out.
Abel: Okay, Issac, thanks a lot for talking to us. Good luck with the record and your performance tonight; I know they're calling for you to go and we have to wrap up.
Issac: Thanks, man.