The Music of Cuban Folk Singer Frank Delgado Bridges Generations

By Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — “I don’t like folk music, I like Frank Delgado,” a young man standing by the entrance to the Fine Arts Museum said. Others close to him wondered how a line of people for a Frank Delgado concert could be so orderly.

It was the last Saturday of August. Some newspapers had announced that the show would start at 7 pm. Outside the museum was a sign saying it would start at 8, but the first notes were actually heard at around the time the cannon-firing ceremony takes place in Havana (9 pm). People sat where they could: there were not enough chairs and most young members of the audience sat on the ground or grass. Luckily, the show was held at the patio of the museum and not its small theater.

Delgado’s music is occasionally played on the radio these days, but there was a time this was not the case. That may explain why he has so many admirers. As we know, Cuba’s censorship mechanisms tend to be whimsical. His followers are a mixed crowd: young people and older folk who are captivated by his sung chronicles, bits of reality accompanied by the broadest range of music genres imaginable.

It’s hard not to smile when we hear the story of the love triangle formed by the seductive Casanova, Cuban singer Cecilia Valdes and Sleeping Beauty, or to avoid feeling melancholy as we hum the melody of Angola, an emotive piece that narrates the consequences of Cuba’s involvement in that African war.

During the evening, Delgado performed legendary pieces such as Cuando se vaya la luz, mi negra (“When the Lights Go Out, Love”), a song many regard as the “powercut blues”, Carta de un niño cubano a Harry Potter (“Letter from a Cuban Child to Harry Potter”), telling the renowned child magician to quit doing foolish thigs and learn the miracles people have to work in Cuba to survive on a daily basis and Orden del dia (“Order of the Day”), a celebration of positive energy among human beings.

The atmosphere that develops during his concerts is rather contagious: people know all of the lyrics by heart and move to whatever rhythm he sets them to: bachata, cha cha cha, son, or folk music. His voice and musical skills allow him to perform any Cuban genre and to fuse these with rock and roll and even Brazilian samba. One of the songs people applauded the most was Matamorina subversiva, inspired by classic folk music from Santiago de Cuba but with contemporary lyrics: launch the tear gas my way / for I want to cry, / things have become so bad / I can no longer take it.

Frank Delgado in his concert at the Cuban Fine Arts Museum patio.

During the concert, Delgado paid tribute to Santiago Feliu, “that devilish and mischievous child,” the friend and folk poet with whom he created (next to Carlos Varela and Gerardo Alfonso) that movement of the 1990s that some called “the generation of moles” and others “Novisima Trova.”

He also dedicated a song to Czech novelist Milan Kundera, a renowned critic of socialism, and another to a band that has been with Cubans of all walks of life for generations: the Van Van. In Educacion Formell (“Formell Education”), he speaks of everything from countryside boarding schools to public reprisals and sadly acknowledges that his utopia “was swept away by a hurricane”: the world is healthier with a Formell education / those in Miami say so, and those that support Fidel as well; / dissidents say so, and Diaz Canel as well.

In La otra orilla (“The Other Shore”), after speaking of the way in which Cuban families have been split up because of differences between the island and the United States, he concludes by saying “I decided to stay on this shore at my own expense and risk.” Delgado closed off the concert wishing that everyone will be granted a visa to travel to the United States and will see their businesses flourish.

Frank Delgado describes himself as an “accomplice of the Ministry of Culture.” His pieces are charged with a refined sense of humor which lampoons what he considers mistaken or ill-conceived. His experiences as an “ordinary Cuban” have given him the raw materials he needs for his lyrics. At his concerts, he talks with people, improvises, makes jokes or ironic remarks and one senses he is fully relaxed. That is why the experience is so pleasant, even if one does not like folk music.