By Alfredo Prieto
His songs are like the iron fist in the velvet glove, as they hammer your reality with humor. Frank Delgado – one of the most distinguished exponents of Cuban “post-trova” song – constructs an ideo-esthetic discourse unparalleled on the contemporary Cuban music scene.
He has been influenced by musical styles – a whole host of them – that are not necessarily “highbrow”; they are mainly those of the guarachero-picaresque tradition, which were initiated during the period of US colonization of the island and cultivated in the 20th century by figures such as Miguel Matamoros, Nico Saquito and Virulo.
Delgado’s lyrics speak of new developments in the heat of crisis and enter a universe made up of characters that he has been able to capture like few others. He songs pick up themes of emigrants (“Nostalgic Bolero’s of Artists Who Have Emigrated”), sex workers (“Ambassadors of Sex”), Spanish businessmen (“Fifth Century Galicians”), Afro-Cuban babalawo priests who charge for their services in cash (“Johnny the Babalao”) and the strategies of day-to-day life (“Living in my folks’ place”)…
Perhaps this is why his music is hardly ever broadcast – and why his concerts are attended mostly by young people who sing along with him in an almost indescribable interaction without attending one of them.
Here, I want to discus Frank Delgado mainly in terms of his viewpoint towards Miami, which is not an aberration, though his particular bent alludes to wider social phenomena.
“The Other Shore,” one of his most famous compositions, is set exactly in the center of the dynamic between Cubans on the Island and those in Miami. It takes a retrospective look at the first two decades of the revolution, where, because of the action of the excluding official policies and the forging heat of those difficult years.
-“I had to speak about them in a hushed voice,
-sometimes in a contemptuous tone.
-At school I was taught they were maggots,
-that they had abandoned their people.”
That changed after 1978, when a dialogue began with the “representatives of the Cuban community,” a fact that allowed – for the first time in more than twenty years – family visits, altered the perceptions of Miami (in a thousand ways) and access to its culture via people-to-people contact.
These larvae later became “butterflies” or members of “the community,” names that would again evolve into to simply “Cubans from Miami,” something that indicates a greater sense of identity and belonging, though hardly a change in the locus of that same group:
-“One day my uncle returned from the other shore,
-filled with an affable spirit.
-They didn’t call him a maggot anymore,
-because he began to be a member of the community.”
Here he refers to those who left during the Mariel boatlift, a traumatic event for both sides, which he conceives as being “fateful” for each. In 1980, about 125,000 Cubans emigrated, like a stampede, to the United States. This troubadour relates it to the middle class wave of the 1960s (the opening of the port of Camarioca) and later with the signing of the 1994 immigration agreements, after the “balseros” rafter crisis that same year, and current illegal emigration:
-“The fateful year, 1980 finally arrived,
-and my family was shrinking.
-Like what happened years before at Camarioca,
-the port of Mariel was gobbling them up.
-“The flow continues to the other shore,
-aboard regular flights and balseros.
-I know they’ll return without amnesty,
-because we need their money (or their consolation, I don’t know).”
That work’s central characters were Benny More and Celia Cruz, icons of popular culture, blended into a same setting, going beyond the differences separated along a demarcation line.
Now this folk singer is taking it further: Delegado is committing the “heresy” of blending Celia Cruz (in many ways the symbol of the Cuban expatriate) with Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, expressions of the new political song that emerged after 1959.
He does all of this taking a similar position of many other Cuban nationals: staying on this shore “on his own and at his own risk.”
It is a shame that Frank is hardly heard on Cuban airwaves. I believe his songs are worthwhile, especially if we want to continue looking at ourselves from within, and going further.