Diego el Cigala made his name in the ’90s and early ’00s as a titan of contemporary flamenco, but for more than a decade, he has enjoyed cross-genre adventures, exploring outside the world of flamenco and winning awards for doing so. When he stepped on stage at Town Hall in New York City recently (Oct. 22) — shoes shined to perfection, shirt unbuttoned to clear space for his beard, a flash of gold jewelry at his ears and fingers — it was to debut songs from his newest album, Indestructible (out Oct. 28 through Sony Music Latin), which is in part a tribute to canonical salsa.
Speaking with Billboard on the phone through an interpreter a few days before the show, El Cigala acknowledged that some listeners were surprised by his interest in salsa. “People almost didn’t believe it,” he said. “People didn’t expect to hear pure salsa from the ’70s and ’80s with a flamenco voice.”
Carlos Alvarez, an engineer credited several times on Indestructible — you can also find his imprint on records by Marc Anthony, Julio Iglesias, and Alejandro Sanz — was more trusting. “[El Cigala] brings an incredible amount of energy and beauty to this,” he said from Miami during a separate phone conversation. “This guy is a student, the real deal. How can you think that it’s not gonna be an interesting listen to have a fusion with that iconic voice?”
El Cigala has earned this sort of faith through a series of accomplished zig zags. He won his first Latin Grammy in 2004 for Lágrimas Negras, a collaborative album with the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés that took home the Best Traditional Tropical Album honor, while his most recent award came in the tango category (his second tango win) for 2013’s Romance de la Luna Tucumana. Where genre names denote difference and throw up walls, El Cigala tends to see similarities. “[Salsa] has many rhythmic, lyrical and compositional similarities to flamenco,” he noted. “If there is no emotion everything is senseless,” he added. “Listen to salsa, tango, boleros or flamenco, but it has to be something that excites you.”
El Cigala’s genre-evading work with Valdés is invoked explicitly on Indestructible — one of the loveliest moments is “Fiesta Para Bebo,” recorded in memory of Valdés, who passed away in 2013, and several songs on the record are Cuban boleros, recorded in the studio with Alvarez. “They hopefully harken back to what he was doing with Bebo,” Alvarez said of the three songs that he worked on. “I came across Diego in the mid-to-late ’90s at some point in Spain. [Lágrimas Negras] was where I was like, ‘whoa.’ I switched on my student hat: what made this recording really beautiful and really successful?”
El Cigala has long harbored an interest in salsa and Cuban music. “I used to listen to Benny Moré, Antonio Machín, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, and other artists like them,” he said. “My father would listen to Machín a lot.” “I felt comfortable with salsa,” he added. “That’s why I did it. I wouldn’t have done anything that would harm the name of salsa — or that of flamenco.”
He started pooling songs for Indestructible in 2013 with help from collaborators like the pianist Jaime Calabuch, who also co-produced the new record. “[They] would bring me music that is not known worldwide, but known in the salsa community or in Cuba,” El Cigala said, along with “all the repertoires of the greats: Cheo Feliciano, Benny Moré, Héctor Lavoe. We must have listened to over one hundred songs. At the end we had these eleven wonders.”
Indestructible includes tracks made famous by Feliciano and Moré as well as a pair popularized by Lavoe. Reflecting salsa’s wide reach and multiple hubs, El Cigala recorded parts of the album in several cities, including Miami, Cali, Columbia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. “I wasn’t going let the musicians come to me,” he explained, “but rather go to their land and search for them.”
Several songs on the new album appeared on the famous New York salsa label Fania Records, so it was only fitting that El Cigala performed in the city on his short Indestructible tour. He came with a ten piece band, including two trumpets, two trombones, two percussionists, and two backing vocalists who complemented their boss: baby faced and clean-shaven where he was whiskered, executing taut, synchronized salsa steps while he remained seated. From his perch on a stool, El Cigala engaged in more casual rhythmic activity: clapping, snapping, beating time on this thigh, clinking out the rhythm on his drink glass with a ringed finger. As the night progressed, a shimmy crept in around his shoulders.
The brawny ensemble cohered on the third song, a rendition of “El Paso de Encarnación” (recorded by Machín, among others), and the show then progressed from one peak to the next: a slashing suite of full-band salsa — a series of adroit skirmishes between the band’s various factions — was followed by several ballads with only El Cigala and his pianist, Calabuch. Several of these reached back to Lágrimas Negras; during “Soledad,” from 2010, a man two seats away cried softly. Calabuch signaled a transition by moving from melancholy, empty-saloon figures on the keys to a cool sashay — after a lick, he’d often throw a happy, inquisitive look at El Cigala, as if to say, “what about that one?” — and the band returned for a series of tracks that started slow before heaving back into jubilant, full-tilt call and response.
Alvarez believes El Cigala’s latest genre merger is timely. “The fusion of tropical and flamenco voices seems to be the new thing,” he said. “It started to come on my radar three years ago. I worked with Buika [on La Noche Más Larga]; it was her doing more traditional Cuban songs; there was a little bit of a mixture there already going on. That’s when I started to think about it.
“I fully embrace it, because it bridges both worlds that I come from,” Alvarez continued. “I hope there will be more of these records.”
But it’s likely that El Cigala will move into new territory on his next record, as he has in the past. “I have never sung anything the same way twice,” he said.