Diego El Cigala, Journey to the Heart of Salsa

The celebrated flamenco star has released his new album, Indestructible, a unique tribute to salsa and its great performers, with eleven classic selections that represent the golden age of the musical genre that emerged from New York’s Latino neighborhoods in the late 1960s.

Texto y fotos: Roberto Quintero, EFE

Diego el Cigala (Diego the Langoustine) is an indefatigable explorer of music. A lodestar of flamenco, and quite possibly the most famous international exponent of the Andalusian music genre, he has already flirted with bolero, tango, and Latin jazz on previous albums. Gems like Lágrimas negras (Black Tears) (2003) and Romance de la luna tucumana (Romance of the Tucumán Moon) (2013) showed that he can successfully, gracefully, and respectfully fuse styles while still remaining true to himself.

Now the Madrid-born singer-songwriter has struck out on an unexpected path, showing us his salsa soul. At the risk of sounding cheesy, this album does indeed have a lot of guts and heart. Indestructible is a tribute to hard salsa and its great performers like Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Cheo Feliciano, and Fania All Stars, with eleven classic selections that represent the golden age of the musical genre that emerged from New York’s Latino neighborhoods in the late 1960s.

But this is much more than an album: it is El Cigala’s journey to the heart of salsa. He visited Cali, San Juan, Havana, Punta Cana, New York, and Miami to record the songs and capture the different nuances and tones of salsa. Along the way, more than seventy musicians from several countries signed on to help create the album, including legends like Oscar D’León, Bobby Valentin, Larry Harlow, and Roberto Roena.

Indestructible went on sale on October 28. I was fortunate to have heard the album earlier in the Dominican Republic in the presence of its creator. This is an authentic treasure, a production in which the author left a part of himself. But let’s hear Diego talk about his work. Here is what we learned in an exclusive Panorama of the Americas interview.

You narrowed selections for the album down to eleven from at least sixty salsa classics. How did you pick the songs? 

They had to be selections that matched my singing style, kind of like a suit made to measure. I listened to the songs and thought: “‘Periódico de ayer’ is a good one, ‘Indestructible’ works, yes to ‘Juanito Alimaña’ and so on.” But we did a lot of work on them; the songs are classics, so they did not have the tempo, pace, or rhythm we used when we recorded them. The selections from earlier days had arrangements typical of the hard salsa of the 1970s and 1980s.

Why did you choose Ray Barretto’s “Indestructible” as the album’s title? 

It reflects me and my life. In particular, events in my life relate to the words. Also, “Indestructible” is a powerful title, with a lot of strength and gravity.

Cuban salsa is not the same as Puerto Rican salsa. Is this why you decided to record the songs in different cities? 

Indestructible is my journey. This album could not have been made with all of those people coming here to me, to a studio; it would not have been the same. I wanted to go to Matanzas in Cuba and be with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, to live with them and experience the roots of the Cuban people. Then in Colombia, I wanted to go to Cali in that beautiful land and be face-to-face with the maestro José Aguirre, and just look into each other’s eyes to reach that understanding where we can say “I know what goes here” just by listening. That happens when you pour so much truth and love into a project. When we reached Puerto Rico, the cradle of salsa, I got to know Fania All Stars members Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentin, Larry Harlow, Nicky Marrero, and Luis “Perico” Ortiz; they’re geniuses, every one of them. They were the ones who got me to sing, to feel. In Miami I recorded with Oscar D’León, a magnificent salsa vocalist and a man who loves his work and was always ready to go. It didn’t matter how many times we had to repeat a song, he was willing.

You could have done this at your own studio and saved money and effort. But you put in the time and paid attention to every detail. Why was this type of process important to you? 

It had to be done like this; albums cannot be hurried. Albums must be done in their own time and the songs need to have charisma and strength. Above all, you need a lot of inspiration, your own stamp. It took a year just to record this album. Three years, if we include song selection. But I took my time recording, paying attention to the smallest details. And that’s what’s so beautiful about this project. There were days when we went to the studio but didn’t feel inspired, so we spent the time adding percussion or something else. I never gave up; I just said, “Not today. Let’s do something else right now.” That’s how albums are made.

Where do salsa and flamenco intertwine? 

They’re downhome, people’s music. Salsa is a trademark in Latin America, like flamenco is in Andalucia. And there is a definite connection between the two. That is why I have felt very free with salsa, but without going too far. I have been careful and very respectful of it.

This is a salsa album with your own flamenco touch. How did you manage to balance the two genres when you fused them? 

This is a salsa album, but I wanted the pieces with flamenco nuances to use subtle instrumental touches. I didn’t want a lead flamenco guitar, for example, but rather a background rhythm guitar. On “El paso de Encarnación” with Oscar D’León, he had his part and wanted a small change where I come in, adding that dash of flamenco shading. It changes a lot when you add some handclaps, box drums, and a guitar accompaniment. But it should come in, stay for a while, and fade out. It shouldn’t be there constantly, since that would be something quite different.

And which song do you think was the hardest to do? 

I think “Juanito Alimaña” was very difficult. That’s a very linear song with a strong story; it reminds me of “Pedro Navaja” by Rubén Blades. They seem closely related. It is also played at a very slow pace. I had a lot of trouble taking that one on, since I didn’t want to sing it too flamenco or too salsa. I wanted to sing street style, make it invoke a night out on the town, make it sound like me. I tried it that way at home at an evening party with my colleagues, and I just threw myself into it and thought, “That’s the way.” It took a lot of effort, but it was worth it.

The album contains two songs by Tite Curet that were immortalized in the voice of the great Héctor Lavoe: “Juanito Alimaña” and “Periódico de ayer.” Did you chose them because of Curet’s composition or because Lavoe is one of the greatest legends of salsa? 

Both: the songs are good and so is Héctor Lavoe’s interpretation. It reminds me of flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla (Island Shrimp), because the lifestyle and the emotions are very much alike. With very creative singers, you can tell them repeatedly, “Look, this is what we’re going to do.” They say, “Yes, of course,” and then do whatever they want, which turns out to be an improvement. They never plan things; everything is improvisation and knowledge. I think they would have been best buddies. And I believe I could have been great friends with Héctor Lavoe.

You just mentioned “Pedro Navaja,” so I really have to ask you about Rubén Blades. Why wasn’t he included? 

I consider Rubén Blades a genius in every sense of the word, as an artist and as a human being. We’re great friends; I really love him. But, well, it just didn’t happen. He was also tied up with other things. I wanted to sing his “El cantante,” but others beat me to it; Niña Pastori recorded it with Rubén: it’s lovely. So I said to myself, “Ok, let’s go on to something else.” But I would have liked to work with him, and I will, God willing.