The first time that his future, in the form of pop singer Enrique Iglesias, called Alexander Delgado, the Cuban rapper hung up on him. Even though Delgado and Randy Martinez, his partner in music duo Gente de Zona, were set to record Bailando with Iglesias, Delgado couldn’t believe the Miami-based superstar would actually call him in Havana.
“He said hey, it’s me, Enrique Iglesias,” says Delgado, dropping his head into his hand. “And I’m like what bull---- is this?”
“He was like brother, they’re pranking me, some guy just called and said he was Enrique Iglesias,” says Martinez, sitting with his buddy at Sonic Projects, a Design District recording studio. Their manager, Guillermo Morejon, had to convince Delgado to call back and apologize.
“I said forgive me, I didn’t know it was you,” Delgado remembers, trying to sound contrite as Martinez and Morejon howl with laughter. “I’ll never hang up on you again. I’ll be an angel, I promise. If you want I’ll call you every day.”
But in the year since then, as Bailando became a massive hit and its video, featuring Delgado and Malcolm, a viral phenomenon with close to a billion hits on Youtube, the two Cubans have become stars in their own right. They are still marveling at the transformation.
“When you’re in Cuba, there are so many problems that things like getting to the Grammys or the Billboard [Awards] seem impossible,” Martinez says. “We were stuck there. Cuban music has so much potential. But because of the problems with the system and the politics, we saw success as something unreachable.”
Bailando’s success has catapulted Gente de Zona to a level of U.S. pop stardom that no Cuban act has enjoyed since Perez Prado in the mambo-crazed ’50s, opening up the unprecedented possibility of an international commercial career. Unlike the Buena Vista Social Club, the elderly traditional musicians who were a world music sensation in the ’90s, Gente de Zona are hot in the Latin mainstream. In January they joined their buddy Pitbull to open Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro awards with the Miami mega-star’s Piensas (Dile La Verdad), on which they’re featured. That song has been hot on Spanish language radio, as has Gente de Zona’s Yo Quiero (featuring Pitbull.) As part of the Bailando team, they earned three Latin Grammys last fall, and six nominations for the Billboard Latin Music Awards at the end of this month.
Their rise has seemed completely unencumbered by politics. Last April, long before the December announcement of the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, Gente de Zona played for screaming crowds at Marlins Stadium. They joined Iglesias on Bailando at a packed and ecstatic AmericanAirlines Arena last October. Earlier this month, they performed at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair. Although they joke that they live on American Airlines, the duo have been approved for U.S. residency and keep homes both on the island and in Miami.
Cuban acts have been playing Miami clubs and venues, usually with little or no controversy, since 2010. But the welcome given to Gente de Zona’s participation in Miami’s most visible events represents a paradigm shift to normalcy for Cuban music.
“The people who like Gente de Zona are not just Cubans, but Latinos,” says Descemer Bueno, the Cuban musician who co-wrote Bailando with Iglesias and launched the project in Cuba. “They’re on the radio every five minutes. Everyone knows them. It opens doors for Cubans, not just in the U.S. but in the whole world.”
Now the challenge for Delgado and Martinez is to walk through those doors on their own.
“They’re great, but [Bailando] has been the vehicle,” says Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming at Billboard. “It’s a great song, yes. But would it have had the same impact without Enrique Iglesias’ name? I don’t think so.”
Still, Cobo says the duo is making the right moves by continuing to partner with better-known acts to further boost their own name and break into notoriously tight radio playlists. “Everyone knows who Gente de Zona is,” she says. “They’re really using this as a springboard, and they’re being smart about it.”
Manager Morejon is determined not to let this chance slip.
“A lot of people have opportunity and luck and don’t know how to take advantage of it,” he says. “You have to have a strategy, and you have to work.”
Gente de Zona’s spot opening for Santana at a concert last month during the Trump National Doral golf tournament seemed an ideal leaping-off point for their aspirations; a high-profile gig featuring a legendary Latino crossover star. Waiting to go on, a tense Delgado and Martinez pace and grip their microphones, then stride on stage waving wildly at the crowd — and at the musicians and crew to boost the volume. They come right up to the front of the stage, pumping their hips and leaning precariously outward, reaching for a response. But their music, dense and rapid, with a horn section and battery of percussion, and their wild energy, seem to largely disappear into the steak and liquor-pacified VIP crowd waiting for Santana and his familiar rock licks. Except for a small clump of shrieking dancers, most Gente de Zona fans are in the cheaper lawn area far in back.
Afterward, they crowd into the back of their trailer, heatedly discussing the show and possible changes with Morejon, Javier Otero, their second manager, and other members of their team. Famed singer Marc Anthony, who they thought would appear, was a no show. They’re frustrated at the sound quality and the passivity of the crowd, and shocked that a tournament official told Santana’s band to turn down the volume during sound check.
“I don’t want a situation like this again,” Delgado growls. Otero and a publicist assure him it was worthwhile. “The boss of Black Label, the boss of Grey Goose were out there,” Otero says. Martinez stands up. “I’ll drink anything — just give me an endorsement!” he proclaims. “Stand naked on the side of the highway and then you’ll get an endorsement,” Delgado tells him, as the men explode with laughter.
The energy and eagerness that fuel Delgado and Martinez’s performances don’t stop offstage. They never seem to stop moving, laughing, joking, dancing. Though they arrive at Sonic Projects heavy-lidded from a recording session that went till dawn, they quickly recover, jostling each other at a gleaming grand piano, singing boisterously along with their own music. Any seriousness doesn’t last long; during one conversation, as Morejon recounted a detailed history of the band, Martinez stuffed a piece of paper up his nose. Their personalities are as intense and distinctive as their rapid-fire Havana argot.
Their energy is intrinsic to their ambition, their music and their appeal. Delgado, 35, the founder and leader, is a shrewd, self-taught musician who fought his way up from the streets. He started life in Central Havana, a dilapidated neighborhood even by the standards of the Cuban capital, with 12 family members crammed into a two-room apartment. “We were poor,” he says. “Very poor. But so is everyone there.” He was 7 when the family moved to Alamar, a bleak housing development on the city’s outskirts that seemed spacious by comparison.
Alamar is the cradle, the boogie-down Bronx of Cuban hip-hop, and by the mid-’90s it was throbbing with Cuban acts and an annual festival in the outdoor amphitheater there. The teenage Delgado was struck by the music’s raw energy. A standout performer at his school’s amateur cultural program, he was confident that this was something he could do.
“I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I heard it on the street. But I liked it. I liked the stories, the discourse they used. And I said someday I’m going to do this music. And do it better.”
The ’90s were Cuba’s euphemistically named “Special Period,” when the end of subsidies from the disbanded Soviet Union led to a desperate economic crisis and food and energy shortages. But it was also a time of immense musical energy and creativity that saw the rise of timba, an amped-up, brashly urban and proudly Cuban style of salsa. Swaggering stars like Manolin, El Medico de la Salsa, NG La Banda and Los Van Van appealed to Delgado more than the Cuban hip-hop artists, who often rapped earnestly and critically about issues in Cuba. Delgado wanted to fight for the right to party.
“They talked about problems with racism, with the government,” he says. “They looked a lot to American rappers. Not me — my inspiration was always Cuban music. I was interested in making music that was more commercial, a more danceable hip-hop — talking about women, good times. I wanted to be famous.”
He started Gente de Zona, named for the zones that divide Alamar, in 2000, initially with a fellow Alamar rapper, partnering later with Jacob Forever and Nando Pro — a lineup that lasted almost a decade. As reggaeton became popular in Cuba, Gente de Zona rose to become one of the island’s top acts, mixing hip-hop and reggaeton with Cuban rhythms and genres for a style called Cubaton.
By 2013, Delgado was on his own again. He and Morejon reached out to Martinez, singer and percussionist with Charanga Habanera, a timba band that had become a Cuban staple with a changing lineup of hot young male performers. Martinez, 31, trained in Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories, started playing professionally at 14, and after a decade with Charanga was ready for a change. He and Delgado had crossed paths frequently, in Cuba and on tours abroad.
“Sometimes we had the same girlfriends,” Martinez says, as the men roar with laughter again.
In the fall of 2013, Bueno, a songwriter who had been successfully juggling a career in Cuba and the United States since the early 2000s, when he was a key founding member of influential Cuban-funk group Yerba Buena, called the duo. He had a song he had started writing with Iglesias — for whom he had written several hits — that the star had never recorded. The trio added some material and recorded the song and a video. Within two weeks it was the most popular song in Cuba. When a friend told Iglesias to check out the infectious Cuban hit, Iglesias was startled to recognize his song — and quick to reclaim it.
Bailando became the biggest hit on his album Sex and Love, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, one of the biggest crossover hits in decades and in Iglesias’ career. Though the video centers on Iglesias, the playful chemistry between him and his Cuban collaborators (who filmed their scenes in Santo Domingo), as well as the joyful Havana dance segments are key to its appeal.
“We all got along,” Iglesias said last fall. “The video’s energy is spontaneous, happy, a bunch of guys having fun. To find those moments after so many years is extremely rare and difficult.”
Months of touring together since then have strengthened what seems to be a genuine friendship between the Miami star and the Cuban duo.
“He was always joking around,” says Martinez, who answers a call from Iglesias during the studio interview with a teasing greeting. “We’re good friends now.”
Right now they are working on a new album, which they plan to release themselves late this year, as well as a U.S. tour to go with it. Pitbull, with whom they share a producer and whose recording studio they sometimes use, has become a friend. Meanwhile, they have become heroes to many Miami exiles, who are thrilled at the duo’s achievement. When Bueno, who also hopes to parlay Bailando into solo stardom, gave a concert at Miami-Dade County Auditorium last month, he brought Delgado and Martinez on for the finale, bringing the already enthusiastic Cuban crowd screaming to their feet.
“We’re extremely proud that Cuban artists are finally coming out and being known outside,” said Leimys Rodriguez, who was there with 20 family members, from young children to grandparents, afterward. “We’re going to be part of the future.”
Whether that future will expand beyond Cuba and Cubans will depend not on politics but on whether Gente de Zona’s sound can appeal to people, and an entertainment industry, for whom their music can still be overwhelmingly intense and foreign. As relations continue to open between the United States and Cuba, Cobo says the Latin music industry is eyeing the duo’s efforts.
“The labels are very interested. … They know there’s a wealth of talent coming from Cuba,” she says. “They’re waiting to see what happens with these sanctions.”
Delgado remains as confident as he was when he first heard hip-hop back in Alamar.
“It’s good music,” he says. “It’s the best. What more can I say?”