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Spanish Harlem Spin-offs Part 2...

George Delgado:

You can take the boy out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the boy

A conversation with John Child
performance photos by Helen Mendez-Child

In the second of two Spanish Harlem Orchestra Spin-offs interviews, percussionist and bandleader George Delgado talks to John Child about his debut CD Mi Ritmo Llegó (2004 on Rumba Jams) and his 20 years plus in the business. Oscillating between Puerto Rico and New York, he has worked with star names like Tito Rojas, Santiago Cerón, Manny Oquendo & Libre, Tony Vega, Jimmy Bosch, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. His transition from sideman to bandleader has thrown-up new challenges which George openly discusses.

John Ian Child (JIC): You were born in the Bronx?

George Delgado (GD): Yeah, Bronx, New York.

JIC: And your family moved to Puerto Rico. How old were you when this happened?

GD: Just beginning junior high school. I'd say 12 years old, something like that.

JIC: So you were in the Bronx for a fair while?

GD: Born and raised in the Bronx until about 1978 and then my parents relocated to Puerto Rico. Then from there everything started.

JIC: Did you lap-up the salsa scene in New York when you were a kid?

GD: I caught little bits and pieces because my mother and father would always go to the famous Villas, and it was always around the house. My father was a house musician. At the time the neighbourhood we grew up in, for some reason or other, had a lot of conga drummers. He hung out with all the guys and he managed to learn how to play a simple tumbao. He passed on the little he learnt to me. Apparently it was God's gift, because I was very quick at picking it up. I remember there was a programme on Sundays, and we would play along with the records. That's how I picked things up. From there on I was very good with the ear. I would immediately translate everything I heard.

JIC: Were there any artists you latched onto in those days?

GD: My father was very much into Ray Barretto. Everything I heard in the house was Ray Barretto. He was into anything to do with congas.

JIC: So was conga your primary instrument at that stage?

GD: Yeah. The very first drum I put my hands on was a conga drum.

JIC: What were the circumstances of your family moving to Puerto Rico?

GD: They just decided to relocate. Looking back on it now, it was a big mistake. I almost followed in their footsteps. The only difference is that I didn't separate from my wife. They left for Puerto Rico and they kinda separated.

JIC: Was the move responsible for their break-up?

GD: I really have no idea.

JIC: Who raised you in Puerto Rico?

GD: After they separated I went from place to place. I would stay one week with him; one week over there with my grandparents, but mainly with my mother.

JIC: Which part of Puerto Rico was this?

GD: It was the east side of Puerto Rico. My mother's from Humacao. That's where Tito Rojas is from.

JIC: I was going to say, and Pedro Conga…

GD: That's where they're from. And my father's from Yabucoa, which is 20 or 30 minutes away.

JIC: So you were in Puerto Rico in 1978. Did you pick-up on what was happening on the salsa scene at that stage?

GD: I was much into English music in New York, but now I heard more salsa because it's more popular there. So I picked more up on it. Right across from my grandmother's house (from my mother's side) was a baritone saxophone player. His name was Julito, may he rest in peace. He and his father used to run a music school in that town. My mother always advocated for me, she said: "My son plays. You should see him play."

JIC: Was it a free or fee paying school?

GD: It was free; it was like a community school. I'm pretty sure that there were people that had to pay.

JIC: Did moving from house to house unsettle you?

GD: No, not really because I was a kid. The drumming was in me. When you do all the kid things like hanging with your friends, riding your bike, and playing basketball, you really don't notice.

JIC: Was your experience of salsa at that stage mainly the local bands?

GD: I got to see Roberto Roena, Willie Rosario, Tommy Olivencia…

JIC: Did you have to go into San Juan and so forth to see them?

GD: No. They used to have, and still have, los teatros de patronales. Back then they used to build like a little cabin, and they would cover it with palm leaves. You had to pay to go inside. These days it's free. I used to peek through the palm trees.

JIC: Did you have any heroes at that stage?

GD: Nicky Marrero's timbal playing was very influential, then I heard Manny Oquendo and Chucky López.

JIC: You heard Manny Oquendo when you were in Puerto Rico?

GD: Yes, because once I started playing at the age of 14 with Tito Rojas, I used to play with a group of guys that were Libre fanatics. I was turned onto it, and when I heard that, I said: "Wow! What a sound."

JIC: So there were hardcore fans of Libre in your hometown?

GD: Yes. I'm a little ahead of the game as to the interview, but the recording with Tito Rojas and Pablito Paredes (El Campesino '84 on Bernis) wanted the same style as Manny doubling on timbal and bongo. And I accomplished that. They very much thought they had the Libre style of two trombones, and they had the tres.

JIC: We'll talk about your break with Tito Rojas in a minute. Did you play with other bands before that?

GD: Yeah, local kiddie bands. But I knew back then that I was always aspiring to be better at what I did. To play the instrument well.

JIC: So how did the Tito Rojas thing come about?

GD: My mother used to work with his wife in the same factory. Tito used to live about a block or two away from me and every day Tito would pick up his wife from work and bring them home. So my mother and his wife were very close buddies, and knowing my mother, it appears she said on the way home: "You know my son plays? You should see him; he plays timbales; he plays congas." At my junior high school they announced the St Valentine's Day ball, and Tito Rojas was going to play. So I told my friend: "It would be nice to see that." And a week later, Tito Rojas comes to my grandmother's house and he tells me: "Hey, I hear that you play and that you're very good. Are you playing with anybody?" I said: "No, I play with the local cats around." He said: "You wanna rehearse with me?" And I said: "Sure." It was like giving a kid a brand new toy. So he says: "I'm going to pick you up on a certain day and we'll go and rehearse in my house." And from that day on, we hit it off. I think Tito saw the hunger in me of wanting to play. Tito played an influential part in me going on stage. He showed me the way to go.

JIC: Was he leading Conjunto Borincuba at that point?

GD: At that point Borincuba had broken-up because Justo Betancourt had left Puerto Rico for whatever reason. He kept the group, so he had some of the original Borincuba members in the group. He did his first solo record Tito Rojas Y El Conjunto Borincano (1980 on Rana Records) with the tune "El Vendedor Que No Fia."

JIC: Tito did another album under his own name (Tito Rojas '82 on Rana Records) before the one you appeared on (El Campesino '84).

GD: Right, yeah.

JIC: Do you know the story behind El Campesino, because it was on that very small Bernis label?

GD: I think it was some friend of his from the Bronx. I really don't know the status of the money and whatever. I had already relocated to New York when that album was recorded.

JIC: I only saw another couple of titles on Bernis; one was by Nelson González y su Orquesta Revelación (Feliz y Contento '84; lead vocals: Alex D'Castro) and the other was by Conjunto La Perla (En Su Nuevo Estilo).

GD: I believe so. I was already back in New York, and it so happened that a friend of mine went to Puerto Rico for vacation. He came back and told me: "Hey listen, the guys told me to give you this message. If you can go to Puerto Rico, they want you to record." And I was like: "Oh my God, really?!" Back in the day you didn't care. I wanted to play. I didn't care if I was going to get paid or what. I knew my butt was there. We recorded, and that was my first recording.

JIC: And it's a fantastic album. I remember you telling me that you had been telling people for years that you made your recording debut with Tito Rojas. But they said: "Shit, we don't see your name on any Tito Rojas album."

GD: Right, right. A lot of people looked at me, because Tito is so popular now. I always felt like some people were thinking: "He's talking out of his mouth." (Laughter) One day I'm at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, and an ex-student of mine comes up to me. He says: "Hey, I heard that record you did with Tito Rojas." I said: "What record is that?" He says: "Yeah, Peleando Duro (2004 on Envidia)." I said: " Peleando Duro, I don't know anything about that." He said: "'El Campesino' and all that." I said: "'El Campesino'?" He said: "Yeah, they released that." I said: "Oh, wow." So I went to pick it up. And that's when I found out that it was redone."

JIC: What do you think of the re-doing?

GD: It's good because I guess they did it to his band setting. I like the first trombone setting more. It was more typical to me. They were looking for that Libre sound. But it's OK. The good thing was that they left the same percussion, so now people could actually see. I actually did two albums with Tito Rojas. There's another one called Todo Ha Cambiado (1984) on the TR label.

JIC: That Kimmy Solis produced?

GD: Yes, that Kimmy Solis produced. That was the second one I did with him.

JIC: There are no musician credits on there.

GD: No credits, no. I did that in New York.

JIC: What was it like trying to slot into the New York scene?

GD: When I came back into New York, the scene was very much the charanga scene, the conjunto scene, and there were a variety of styles. Charanga America was very popular at the time. Orquesta Broadway too. Then you had the conjuntos: Conjunto Clásico, (Héctor) Casanova, Pete El Conde, (Santiago) Cerón… Then you had the big bands: Tito Puente, Palmieri, Luis "Perico" Ortiz, Héctor Lavoe, Angel Canales… You had all that variety in New York.

JIC: But were you getting called by any of these bands?

GD: No. Nobody knew me. I started playing with Kimmy Solis in New York around the end of 1983.

JIC: How did that come about?

GD: That's a real good question. I really don't know how I got that gig.

JIC: Wasn't he based in New Jersey?

GD: Yeah, he was in the Cuban side of Jersey, which is Bergenline. I don't really remember how I got that gig. I also played with Tito Allen for a little bit. I think that's where I got the Cerón gig. I was playing with Tito Allen and I think I was sharing the stand with Ray Barretto. Carlito Soto, who was Barretto's bongo player, said: "Hey, you looking for a gig? I've got a gig for you." He was the one who turned me onto the Cerón gig. And then from there, people started seeing me, because I was more in the popular scene. I was playing in the Corso, Casa Borinquen, Club Broadway, and all these other clubs.

JIC: Do you remember how long after you arrived back in New York, you started playing with Cerón?

GD: I started playing with Cerón at the end of '84. My first traveling gig was with Santiago Cerón. I was about 18 and the first trip was to Colombia. He was HOT! When I joined that band, the conga player Bobby Allende said: "You're gonna work like crazy, because that guy works A LOT!"

JIC: So Cerón was big in Colombia at that stage?

GD: Yeah, very popular in Colombia. We had two weeks there and we worked every day. And we were working when we got back to New York. Actually, I met my wife when I got back from that Colombian trip. We're still together.

JIC: What year was that?

GD: That was 1985. We finished just before the New Year in Colombia and we came back to New York to bring in the New Year. The week after I met my wife till today.

JIC: Talking of wives, here are some photographs that my wife took of you with Cerón's band in 1987 performing in Club Broadway. So you'd obviously been playing solidly with him from 1984 up to 1987. Did the gig last longer than that?

GD: Yeah, because I left in about 1988 to be part of a new group called Típica 88.

JIC: I was going to ask you about them.

GD: Cerón kinda slowed down, but then I came back to play every once and a while.

JIC: He got caught up, as virtually everyone did, in the salsa romántica thing. He made some less successful romantic albums towards the end of the '80s.

GD: That's when that wave of the Eddie Santiago / Frankie Ruiz thing happened.

JIC: Which is not his bag.

GD: No, no. He was more montuno, Arsenio; that was his line.

JIC: Who are these guys in the photos? That's Russell "Skee" Farnsworth on bass.

GD: Right, yeah. The conga player is Izzy Díaz. This guy (playing claves), we call Tito Mancha, he was a band boy for Libre. But he played claves and he would do coro. The piano player's name is Victor. I don't remember his last name.

JIC: Russell "Skee" Farnsworth had already made a significant contribution with Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz and worked with Henry Fiol.

GD: He's a music copyist. So when he wasn't playing, that's what he was doing.

JIC: Another one of your earliest New York recordings was It Feels So Good! (1989 on Cotona) with Típica 88. Tell me about the band?

GD: The band started out with the same setting as Cerón's group. It was a conjunto. It was one trombone and two trumpets, tres, piano and bass; and had two singers. It was HOT when it first came. The band was packed with energy. Eddie Montalvo on congas; Jimmy Bosch (trombone); Lionel Román, trumpet player; Willie Ruiz on trumpet; Jorge Maldonado (lead vocals); Carlito Velázquez on bass; Roberto Navarro (piano / musical director). The band was very hot for a while, and again it got caught-up in the romántica salsa thing. And then he tried to change it. Then he added a timbal. Then I moved on to the timbal. Then Jorge González (who's here with us*) started playing bongos. But in my opinion, it kinda lost its way. It was looking for something that wasn't fit for the group; and then it disintegrated.

(*NOTE: Jorge González played bongo with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at London's Latin Splash event on July 1st 2005.)

JIC: The main guys behind Típica 88 seemed to be Roberto Navarro and…

GD: Kokie Colón, who was…

JIC: …the money and the songs.

GD: Yeah, the money and the songs, right.

JIC: And we can only speculate where he got his nickname from?

GD: Yeah! (Laughter) Those were the days. (Laughter)

JIC: I understand that Eddie Montalvo, who you've already mentioned in connection with Típica 88, was instrumental in you getting the gig with Libre.

GD: The story there is one time on a Saturday night, Eddie Montalvo called me. And he says: "What are you doing tonight, George?" And I said: "I'm just chilling out here, watching TV with the lady." He says: "You wanna do a gig?" So I said: "What you got?" He says: "Well, I've got Poughkeepsie with Libre." I said: "Get outta here," because Eddie's known as a kidder. So I said: "For real?" He says: "Yeah, yeah. I'm not kidding you. Come to my house. Pick up a pair of congas. I'll give you the address, I can't make it." So sure enough, I got dressed. I told my wife: "Come on, let's go." Because again, you're giving me a new toy. I was a big fan of Manny already. So I go to Eddie's house and Eddie has a hallway full of congas. He said: "Pick whatever drums you want from there." He told me, I'll never forget: "When you get there, be humble, and just follow his lead; and play hard." And I said: "OK." And sure enough, I sat in to play with him at Vassar College. Manny is always skeptical. Right away he goes to Andy (González): "Who's this young kid?" And Andy tells him: "Don't worry, he's OK. He's alright." So I sat down to play, and sure enough, right after the gig Manny says: "Hey, whenever you wanna play here, you have a seat here." From there on, he took me under his wing. He kept calling me and kept calling me. And that's when I got into the Manny Oquendo scene.

JIC: Which year was that?

GD: That was in '89.

JIC: That's the same year the album you did with Típica 88 was released.

GD: Típica 88 collapsed rather quickly.

JIC: You've already mentioned that Manny and Nicky Marrero are among your influences. Tell me more about the bands and individuals who have shaped your approach to playing and your stylistic preferences?

GD: When I joined Libre, I had already heard them and I knew what they were about. When I started playing in general, I was very good at knowing what styles I liked: the Palmieri style, the Puente style; the way that Chucky (López) used to play the bongos. I used to practice my butt off to the Eddie Palmieri album Unfinished Masterpiece (1976 on Coco), where Chucky takes a bongo solo on "Oyelo Que Te Conviene," which is the longest solo I've ever heard. And I would practice so much to that. The fact of playing with Libre meant I was seeing the top-level guys wherever I went to play with them. I got to see Reinaldo Jorge; I got to see Jimmy Delgado. You see a different magnitude of guys. And I say: "OK, now I've got to play, because I've got to try to fit in with this." But at the same time I was a fan of all these guys.

JIC: Your career had gone up a gear.

GD: Yeah, right. So when the Libre thing came in, they said: "Wow, a young kid replaced Jerry González." What I always try to do with established groups such as Manny Oquendo, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente is try to keep the same feel as whoever was there before. So there would not be much of a difference. Believe it or not, some people really appreciate that. They say: "OK, he's respecting what it is." That's where the problem lies with some of today's drummers. They play very well, they have a lot of talent, but they don't keep the tradition. They're not conscious of: "OK, that's the way it was. OK, let me keep it there, and then I can throw in a little something else." I've been playing with Jimmy Bosch. God bless him, he's extraordinary. And Hermán Olivera. Hermán and I have been playing together for so many years, and I've seen the way he's evolved, such as I've evolved; such as Frankie Vázquez has evolved. I remember Manny was very detailed, very few words, but he would say so much when he spoke. He used to call me at my house. He never called me by my first name. He always called me Delgado. He would say: "Your tumbador is too low," and hang-up. (Laughter) If we had a gig the next day, and if I over-played, he would call me and say: "Delgado, you're playing too much," and hang-up. He was very cute with the word. You know what? Manny records every gig. Since he doesn't drive, he listens to what you did on the way home. So next day he gives you your ticket. I knew how to accept that from him.

JIC: How often were Libre playing at that point?

GD: When I came into the band, for some reason or other they were really working A LOT! Conga playing was not my forte, but I knew how to play. I was always a bongo player or timbal player. I remember a time at the Village Gate, I told Andy: "Andy, I have a gash in my finger. It's cut." We had the whole week to play, and I said: "Andy, I don't think I can play." He said: "NO! Manny's gonna flip! You've got to do something, Band-Aids, something." He asked me: "You take vitamins?" I said: "No." He said: "Take vitamin C." And it worked. It healed my hand. Then I told Manny, and he said to me: "I've been checking you out for a while, the way you hit with the right hand is not the way. That's why you keep getting that gash." So after that I was good.

JIC: You didn't get to record with Libre until a little bit later because their recording career has tended to be a bit patchy.

GD: Right, yeah. Their recordings are not the same as they were. The first recording I did was I believe in '91, and we actually did two albums at once, which was Ahora (1994 on AMO; reissued on Milestone).

JIC: And that didn't come out until a bit later. I remember there were two in the can when you appeared with Libre in the UK for the first time in 1992. It took a while for Ahora to appear, and then they put out the second half…

GD: …which is Los New Yorkiños (2000 on Milestone), which was maybe two or three years ago. Then in between that we recorded Mejor Que Nunca (1994 on Milestone) and On The Move! (Muevete!) (1996 on Milestone). But it was fun and it was an experience.

JIC: Do you get called at all these days to play with Libre?

GD: No. I did one gig with them in Detroit. I can't remember what year it was. Maybe 2002, 2001. Oscar (Hernández) was on that same date. It was good. For some reason Manny and I have always kept a good relationship whenever we see each other.

JIC: Am I right in remembering that shortly after you appeared with Libre in London in '92, you started working with Tony Vega?

GD: Yeah. In 1994 me and my wife decided to do the same thing my parents did. We went to Puerto Rico on vacation, and we liked it so much. So I said: "You know what? Why not let's do it." We were young, we had nothing to lose. I went ahead by myself and I started playing with Tony in December of '94. I recorded two albums with him. One is called Tony Vega (1996 on RMM) and the other one is Hoy Quiero Cantarte (1998 on RMM). It was good while it lasted. Right about September of '98, Hurricane George hit Puerto Rico, and Tony's work was slowly decreasing. And that's the only thing I had. It wasn't like in New York. In New York, I was able to hustle a lot more.

JIC: Are you saying that in Puerto Rico it is more a situation where you belong to an orchestra rather than being a scene where you get called to perform with different bands or do sessions?

GD: Yeah. I would say there is a clique, which is a group of guys who are the ones who are always doing all the recordings, and they are doing everything else. And then you have another group of guys. You see, Tony had very steady work, and they had everything organised.

JIC: It seems that on the Puerto Rican scene there is a pool of session musicians they use on the albums, and then there are the actual guys who play in the bands.

GD: Right, exactly.

JIC: And some bandleaders list both sets of musicians on their albums.

GD: Right, they list the actual musicians that play and the ones that recorded it. Tito Rojas does that. Then toward the end of my being in Puerto Rico, like '97 / '98, I started getting calls for some recordings thanks to Julito Alvarado and Humberto Ramírez. They started calling me. You know they say: "You can take the boy out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the boy." I went to New York on one of the tours with Tony, and I went back to where I used to work, which is Boys Harbor. And by crazy chance, I said: "Ramón, if I ever decide to move back to New York, will you give me work?" And he says: "Sure. As a matter of fact, give me a call at the end of July." So now, I go back to Puerto Rico after the tour, and everything is falling apart. Tony's work is getting slower. And I'm doing odd jobs to try to make ends meet. And I call him. He says: "Alright, I can start you with two dates in September. But you don't have to give me an answer now." So, I went along with it. I went back to New York with Tony. And after we come back to Puerto Rico, Tony announces that he's no longer taking the band to New York. He can't afford it. I said: "Tony, not even me?" He says: "Not even you." I said: "You don't have to pay my hotel." "I can't take you." So now Hurricane George hits. Tears the island up. No work, because everything is outdoors in Puerto Rico. So then I called Ramón: "Ramón, when can I start?" And Ramón says: "Whenever you're ready." So then I relocated back to New York in October of '98. A little while after that I did my first tour with Jimmy Bosch through Europe, and then from there on I just kept working.

JIC: In terms of recording work, you've done a load of session work. Listed in your CV are Eddie Torres and his Mambo Kings, La Sonora Matancera, Jimmy Bosch, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Charlie Cruz, Frankie Negrón, Los Soneros del Barrio, Eddie Palmieri, Frankie Morales, Johnny Ray, Jimmy Delgado, Latin Giants of Jazz and Ricky González.

GD: There's a lot more stuff.

JIC: I know, I just highlighted some of the names. Amongst those I've listed, or those I haven't, are there any particular names you would like to single out to talk about?

GD: The Manny Oquendo and Libre recordings were an experience because you record live, like you're on a gig. The Tito Puente recording (Masterpiece / Obra Maestra '00 on RMM) was to be historical because, unfortunately, it was his last recording. I got called for that at the spur of the moment. So I was totally ignorant about what I was going to see when I got to the studio. I remember that there was everything but food on that recording. I was called to do that through Johnny Rodríguez, who I am a big fan of, and he's a good friend. He's like a brother to me. Like a father; like an uncle. Johnny Rodríguez and I have somehow always clicked: personally and musically. So he calls me up and says: "George, I need you to do this." And I said: "OK, I'll be there."

JIC: So how did your relationship with Johnny Rodríguez develop?

GD: Because we had already recorded with Eddie Torres (Dance City '94 on E&E) and with Mitch Frohman of The Bronx Horns (Catch the Feeling '95 on TTH). You know when you first meet somebody and you hit it off right away. You feel like you've known this guy for years. So he took a liking to me, and that's how we developed.

JIC: Obviously another thing about the Tito Puente session is that Eddie Palmieri was involved. Had you already worked with Eddie at that stage?

GD: I had worked with Eddie, but he maybe had not remembered. I had already worked with him maybe once or twice in the past. When they did that recording, each artist (Tito and Eddie) had their call. You know, Eddie Palmieri had his call as to who he wanted to use. In this case it was for the Puente thing. So that's why Johnny called. They told him: "Listen, we need either a conga player or bongo player." They wanted to call somebody else, whose name I don't want to mention, and they said: "No, no. Get somebody else." So Johnny said: "OK," and he called me. So that's how that came about.

JIC: Are there any other recording dates you want to highlight?

GD: Well, the other ones are kinda a little hard to highlight, because of the fact that it's more like a job punching in your card. You go to the studio. Sometimes you don't even know who it's for. It's like any other job.

JIC: Is it the case that you were proud of being on Celia Cruz & Friends: A Night Of Salsa (2000 on RMM)?

GD: Now that was weird. We knew that they were going to video it and all that stuff, because they gave us the forms. But I didn't know the whole magnitude of it. Had we known, probably it wouldn't have come out that well. We played like anything else, and it actually won a Grammy. It was so well recorded. That was an experience. People saw it on TV, and I must say that it brought in a lot of students. People to this day still talk about that. That was very fortunate for me.

JIC: What was the story behind your recruitment to the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

GD: When Oscar (Hernández) came with the idea that this was what they wanted to do, I can't tell you if I was the first one in the rhythm section that he called. I remember him calling me and asking: "What do you think of this guy for this? What do you think of that guy?" I don't want to mention any names. I kinda told him: "These guys are good for this style, and these guys are good for that style. And if this is what you want, this is what you need." So he says: "OK," and then we took it from there. He says: "Listen, we got rehearsals this day, and we'll take it from there." So that's pretty much how that came about. Basically what Oscar was looking for is that sound of the '70s and early '80s, where the salsa was very solid, and more straight time than music today, where it can be more unsteady than it used to be. That's why I think it's become so popular, because it's simpler, but then again it comes with that edge.

JIC: And, of course, that band has been a phenomenal success in terms of recordings: first a Grammy nomination and then a Grammy Award. Would you say that this provided you with the springboard for your own solo career, or was that already on the cards?

GD: It works both ways, because people are always going to look at you as part of that Grammy, and many people have called me to congratulate me. In a way, it has given me the exposure to boost my thing. So people then have somewhat of a guarantee of what to expect. You know: he did this; he's not going to do anything less for his own thing.

JIC: How did your solo project Mi Ritmo Llegó (2004 on Rumba Jams) come about?

GD: It came through my mind a long time ago. I'm a big fan of Mulenze from Puerto Rico. Then I listened to a couple of other groups: Grupo Galé and Grupo Niche from Colombia. These guys are playing some tasty salsa, and it's simple, and that's what I like. I kinda got the kick of doing it, and then it died mentally. Somewhere down the line it picked-up again, and I had a couple of favours owed to me, so I took advantage of it. So I got the two charts down. The first two charts I did were "De Todas Maneras Rosas" and "El Hijo De Obatala." Those were the first two songs I recorded, and I was paying out of my pocket, still asking on favours. Then Carlos Ortiz from Rumba Jams, who is the owner of Los Soneros del Barrio's label, heard it and said: "I kinda like that. That's the kind of stuff I like." Then he took the decision of signing me on.

JIC: I think you've already given me a hint that Mulenze, Niche and Grupo Galé sort of shaped your sound.

GD: Yes, the sound I'm looking for. Because, if you notice, it's pretty much the same combination. The only exception is that I think Niche and Galé use three trombones and two trumpets, and Mulenze uses the same combination as me. The sound of Galé with the three trombones and two trumpets, and Niche and Mulenze really inspired me. Borincuba also had that sound with the tres too. I try to bring everything I like to the plate.

JIC: Were you in control of the whole Mi Ritmo Llegó project?

GD: Everything, yes. Well, actually me and the engineer Dave Feliciano. He was pretty much in charge of the technical part. He also gave me some good ideas, and he's like a computer whiz. So he kinda showed me: "Well, we can do this, we can do that. You don't have to do that again." He played an instrumental role with the literature too. How to pronounce, and how to say certain things meaning the same thing using less words. I knew pretty much what I wanted to hear; I just needed that extra person.

JIC: Mi Ritmo Llegó was a bit of a surprise. I suppose I was expecting to hear more of a New York sound, but you've now made me understand that your inspiration for the sound was from outside New York, which is pretty much how it comes across.

GD: Right, from outside New York.

JIC: The album was partly recorded in Puerto Rico; which parts?

GD: I only recorded one song in Puerto Rico, and that is "Fuiste Tú," because the arranger Julito Alvarado lives in Puerto Rico, and he has his own studio. What happened was that I got to do the Heineken Jazz Festival with Jimmy Bosch, and I called Julito and said: "You know what? Jimmy Bosch managed to get me to stay an extra couple of days at no cost. Let's do your tune in Puerto Rico." And that's how we did that. So I did the concert, and the day after I went into the studio with Julito Alvarado and I used the musicians there.

JIC: Julito also does a trumpet solo on the title track "Mi Ritmo Llegó."

GD: Now he was in New York. (Laughter) He calls me, he says: "I'm on vacation with my family, but I've got my trumpet if I have to do any gigs or something." I said: "You know what? Why don't you come down and do a solo on one of my tunes?" But he got caught up with the family and we couldn't do it. But, thank God with today's technology, we can do stuff on the computer. So we prepared a disc for him, and I sent it to Puerto Rico. He played the solo and sent it back to me and we put it on the recording.

JIC: Both you and Chino Nuñez** have chosen tracks from Ray Barretto's Indestructible album (1973 on Fania) with Frankie Vázquez singing in each case. What's the story there?

(**NOTE: Frankie Vázquez sings "Indestructible" on Chino Nuñez's 2005 CD It's SHO Time: Strictly Hardcore On 1 Or 2 - Tribute To The Dancers on Cookita Records)

GD: Frankie is like New York's number one sonero, between him, Hermán Olivera and Ray de la Paz. Frankie is like our war-man. I actually had somebody else sing "El Hijo De Obatala," but I wasn't too crazy about it and neither was the company owner. He says: "No, put Frankie in there." And I say: "OK, let's put Frankie in there." And Frankie was so eager to do it. He came in and did it in less than an hour. He sang the song from top to bottom. I'm a Barretto fan.

JIC: As was your dad.

GD: As was my dad. And that Indestructible album is great. Actually all his albums are great. Now Chino, I guess he wanted to have his tune include a timbal solo. So who else better to sing it than Frankie. I actually tried to get Tito Allen to sing it. But Tito Allen wasn't interested. He wasn't interested in recording the same song with a different artist, which is understandable.

JIC: But he has done it now on Viva La Salsa - A Tribute To Latin Music, Live From The Tito Puente Amphitheatre In San Juan, PR (2004 on Universal).

GD: Yeah, right. So I said: "OK, I respect your opinion." And then I went with somebody else.

JIC: Talking of Chino, he's also on Mi Ritmo Llegó.

GD: He arranged the title track, and played piano on it. We set up a MIDI track of Chino playing piano as a reference track. I told the engineer: "You know what? That piano sounds GOOD. And I don't want to waste time looking for somebody else to do it." I said: "Leave him on it." We fixed a couple of things. Chino is not really a piano player, but he knows what needs to be done. He was just telling me that he's going to start taking classes with Sonny Bravo, I believe. Chino and I have been working along side each other for many years, so we understand each other musically. So when I asked him to arrange for me, he knew exactly what to give me. He's a great guy and he plays his butt off. He's very talented.

JIC: Hermán Olivera is on the album as well.

GD: Right, "A Mi Me Gusta" is a descarga tune that I did. Actually that tune evolved from teaching at bongo class. I was teaching a young kid, who should be about 17 by now. I was teaching him the son montuno feel; Arsenio, Chappottín. This was the way they played. And as I'm teaching him, I came up with this coro. And I said to him: "You know what? That's a funky coro." In the school room right next to me is a guy called David Oquendo, he's a Cuban guitar player. So I tell him: "David come over here for me, bring your guitar. Let's put this into melody. This is the route I want to go." And we put it together and I put it on a cassette and I gave it to Ricky González. I explained to him: "This is the way I want to go. Think of 'Tumba Y Bongo' (originally from Larry Harlow's Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez '71 on Fania), when they're sharing the solos. I'm thinking Larry Harlow, that New York style of conjunto playing." That's how that song came about. And then I said: "Alright, let me bring in the guys. Bring Jimmy Bosch, Eddie Zervigón, Hermán; we'll make a jam out of it." The initial bass player I wanted to use for that was Andy González, because that's his line. But exactly at the time I called him, that was when he got ill. So I couldn't use him.

JIC: And you've got Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez on there.

GD: Yes, because I did a classic tune "Tus Ojos." Because I play with the Puente band, I wanted to have something that related to the big band sound. The engineer said to me: "You should do one of those old boleros." I said: "Everybody's recorded the same bolero." As I was walking my dog, I was thinking of "Tus Ojos," and I was thinking of a faster version of it. Immediately I called José Madera and said: "Can you do this?" And he said: "Yeah, that would be great." He says: "Who do you want to sing it?" I said: "Hermán." Because Hermán has that Héctor Lavoe voice and he knows the style. So we put it together immediately, and I said: "Well, let me bring in the legends." Johnny Rodríguez, who probably recorded it when it was a bolero, Mario Rivera, Bobby Porcelli…

JIC: Tell me about your lead singer Julio Salgado?

GD: Julio Salgado used to sing with Felo Barrio and La Inspiración (Felo Barrio y La Inspiración '86 on Musica International) and he did a couple of projects on his own (including Easy Living '95 on Combo); he sang with Orquesta Broadway. To the day that I called him to record, I only knew him by sight. I didn't really know him personally.

JIC: Who selected him?

GD: I did, because I knew his voice, but we never worked together. I had already started my project with another singer and the voice didn't fit. So I said: "Let me call this guy up." I called him up and he was interested, and I played the tracks for him. I said: "You think you can do this?" He said: "Yeah." And that's how he fell into the picture. I don't think he's played that kinda hardcore salsa style. As we're playing, he's getting the feel of what it is. He basically did a lot of charanga work that doesn't require too much singing as far as soneos are concerned. So now he's evolving with that. He's got a great voice. He's a got a blend of Jerry Rivas and a little bit of Pedro Brull, but he does have his own little style.

JIC: Presumably as a result of Mi Ritmo Llegó you've started gigging with your own band. What skills do you think you need to apply as a leader as opposed to having been a sideman?

GD: Leader is very big shoes to fill, because all the friends you've worked with as a sideman, now you gotta tell them what to do and what not to do. It's a big task. (Laughter) It's like walking around with 11 little kids, because you gotta tell them: "Listen, you've got to be here seven o'clock. Not seven thirty. Seven o'clock. You gotta wear this." And sometimes they still show-up at seven thirty. You're head of a company now, and when there's no work, they call you: "Hey George, what's going on?" I say: "Hey, take it easy, I gotta hustle a little bit more." Unfortunately getting gigs in New York is a little hard because there's not too many clubs.

JIC: Not only are you having to rise above the people you've been on the same level with as a sideman, some of those are also leaders you're competing with for work.

GD: Exactly. I keep telling my wife: "I'm going to lose the little bit of hair that I've got left. I'm going to lose it now." (Laughter) There's always something. Now I look at myself. I was never extremely late to a gig. I would get there, as I call it, photo-finish ready to start. Now I have to be at the gig a lot earlier. I gotta make sure that if they're paying me with a cheque, I gotta have the money for the guys, or let them know way ahead of time that I'm paying them with a cheque. It's simple bullcrap that you've now got to deal with. When you're a sideman you're dying to get off the stage, or finish because you're tired. Now I've got to look at the person who's doing the event: "Are we finished? Should I stop?" But I have faith that I can be a good leader. I just need the work. Right now I'm trying to see if I can get help from an agency, where I can take some of the workload off, because it's a lot of work. I gotta make the calls, etc. There's some things that are better handled by somebody else.

JIC: What does the future hold for George Delgado the orchestra?

GD: My whole intention is to have an excellent band, where everybody can work. I may presume to be kinda hard, but I'm really very flexible. I would really like to take it to a level such as where the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is, as far as I can take it. I like to look good on stage. I actually have uniforms for my band. I've gone out to buy shirts for them. That's another thing! (Laughter) I buy shirts for the guys. Now they leave the house, and they call me when I'm about an hour away from the gig to ask me: "What shirt was I supposed to wear?" And I said: "The blue shirt." "Oh, I didn't find it." And they gotta go back. New York has lost that nature of wearing a uniform.

JIC: It's a very Puerto Rican thing. It used to be in New York.

GD: Yeah. Perico Ortiz had that down. Any time you wanted to meet or see beautiful girls you had to go see where Perico Ortiz was, because Roberto Lugo and the whole band were so well dressed that it attracted all the girls.

JIC: Roberto Lugo was a pretty boy.

GD: He was a pretty boy, yeah. He attracted everybody and their mother, as they say. I think it looks good, it looks presentable to have a well dressed band. Some guys get out of hand with the dress code. They don't comb their hair. You tell some guys to wear black shoes and they wear black sneakers. Little do they know, the club owners always look at that, and the people look at it. They think they don't, but the people look at it.

JIC: Is there anything you'd like to add before we finish?

GD: I just hope I can always be blessed, as all of us can, to keep doing this. I hope that sometime in the future I can work on this side of the world (Europe). I know I have a good danceable band that caters to the dancers. That's what I wanna do. I want to be on top and be recognised as George Delgado and his orchestra. It's a little hard because I'm the conga player and I'm in the back, and refuse to be in the front. Everybody tells me: "You should stand in the front." I say: "No, I've got to stay with my rhythm guys in the back." Hopefully I can do my next record some time in the new year.

JIC: Are you getting material lined-up for it?

GD: Yeah, I'm already starting to pick some material. I'm gonna to do less covers this time. But I already have in mind a couple of covers that I want to do, which I think are excellent tunes. But I want to do a little more commercial stuff. I want to cater in the same way: danceable, not too fast, because that's what the people like. Personally I wouldn't dance to an extremely fast song. I don't have the energy for it.

JIC: Thanks very much.

GD: Thank you.

© and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca. He is an editor and journalist for the Latin music website, and a contributor to the MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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