Though hailed as the greatest flamenco cantaor of his generation, Spain’s Diego El Cigala cuts a wide artistic swath. After sitting in with flamenco greats such as Paco de Lucía, Camarón de la Isla and Gerardo Núñez in his early years, Diego El Cigala set off on his own, with his first solo disc released in 1998.
But it was “Lágrimas Negras” (2003), his collaboration with legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, that plotted the course for the rest of the singer’s career. Weaving together Afro-Cuban and flamenco rhythms, the album became his international breakthrough. Since then, the artist — born Ramón Jiménez Salazar on Dec. 27, 1968, in Madrid — has followed with other genre-bending projects such as “Diego & Tango” (2010), “Romance de la Luna Tucumana” (2013, tango, folk, rock and flamenco) and most recently, the salsa-infused “Indestructible” (2016).
In many ways, “Indestructible” serves as a valentine to Fania Records, the New York City-based label that put salsa, an American-born hybrid of Cuban and Puerto Rican styles, on the musical map in the ’60s. The album features songs written by Fania’s greats (many of whom recorded and toured together as the Fania All-Stars). Several Fania All-Stars participated in the studio sessions of “Indestructible,” which also received a special assist from Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. But the connective tissue holding the project together is the imploring voice and unerring instincts of Diego El Cigala.
For his current tour, which stops April 6 at Symphony Center for an SCP Special Concert, Diego El Cigala and his band will perform songs from “Indestructible,” as well as new arrangements of classics from “Lágrimas Negras” and other discs. “‘Corazón Loco’ with the brass section sounds amazing,” he said in an email interview. “Then later in the concert, I will be on stage only with my pianist for a more intimate segment.”
More from the man whose stage name means “The Little Prawn” in English:
There are similarities between the genres of flamenco and salsa, but it seems like an unlikely fusion. How did you manage to pull it off?
I have never much liked the word “fusion,” but I understand what you mean. I don’t just try to mix things. I look for things in common that were already in music, thanks to ages of encounters between cultures. I am just a flamenco singer singing salsa songs with a salsa band. Of course I do it from my point of view and that changes the outcome. Every time I face a new genre, I do it with maximum respect and by listening to the masters.
For “Indestructible,” you selected some of the most iconic standards in salsa, including two by Tite Alonso, Ray Barretto and especially “El Ratón” by Cheo Feliciano — did it feel intimidating to take on such legendary songs?
A little bit, but it felt right. Especially “El Ratón.” I wanted to be in the studio with the original musicians from the Fania All-Stars; if I was guided by Bobby Valentín, Larry Harlow, Roberto Roena, Jorge Santana, Nicky Marrero, Luis Perico Ortiz and all these other so talented musicians with such a knowledge of salsa, it would have been [difficult] to do it wrong.
You recorded your version of “El Ratón” with many of the Fania All-Stars who recorded the original — what was that experience like?
A learning experience, a master class from the big names of the genre. It was such a magic moment to be able to have so many people together. So many of them have not been all together in a few years and listening to their stories from the ’70s was such a powerful and inspirational moment. We all recorded live together in the studio, and it was pure magic.
The album was recorded in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Miami, etc., with up to 70 musicians. How did you marshal such resources over so many locales?
With a great team, it was a group effort, and we worked so hard for so many months before we even started traveling. But we were quite lucky and things went smooth, not easy, but everything aligned quite well. At the end, everyone on the team though it was worth it.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the Cali Salsa Big Band were essential to this disc, each in his/its respective ways. How did you come to collaborate with both and what were their contributions to “Indestructible”?
The Cali Salsa was a huge part of the recording; we [were] such a good tandem that somewhere during the project, we decided they should tour with us for the live concerts, and I am so happy to be able to continue our collaboration. As time goes by, we know each other more and more, and now we are playing not only salsa, but boleros, tango and whatever comes our way. Gonzalo, I have worked with his father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, long ago, toured and recorded with him, and we spoke always about Gonzalo. When we decided we wanted a couple of boleros to give some calmer energy to the album, his name was the first to come to my mind.
You’ve said you owe your Latin music experiments to your work with Bebo Valdes. Could you elaborate?
It was a decisive moment in my career, seeing him in the “Calle 54” movie and talking with [director Fernando] Trueba to meet him. We did a couple of songs together for one of my albums, and then it happened, my story with the pianos started, the discovering of new genres that I have heard before but I never thought I’ll sing. Then we did “Lágrimas Negras,” and I transcended flamenco to discover a world of possibilities that today is still developing.
After conquering tango, South American folk and now salsa, what other Latin music genre might you tackle next?
Probably boleros rancheros [a genre popularized by Mexican greats such as Pedro Infante, Javier Solis and José Alfredo Jiménez, and more recently, Vicente Fernandez]. I have been touring in Mexico since 20 years ago, and I always said I wanted to do a tribute to Mexican music, and the time I think has come. They have so many amazing authors that choosing a few songs for an album will be really difficult but I think that will be my next project.
“Indestructible” closes with another classic, the bolero “Como Fue” (“How It Was”), famously popularized by Beny Moré and later Ibrahim Ferrer. What’s the song’s significance to you?
A moment of peace, of finding yourself, also a tribute to Bebo, and his piano. I wanted the album to have a couple of moments between all the energy where you could stop and breathe. One of my favorite songs to play live, I do it only with my piano for a very emotional and inspiring moment on stage.
You’ll turn 50 later this year. Will this be a milestone or just another birthday?
A half-way milestone to 100 years … I don’t know. I don’t think a lot about it, but it’s sure a respectable number. I would not say it’s just another birthday but I’m not sure of its meaning.
Fifteen years have passed since “Lágrimas Negras,” your breakthrough disc in much of the world. What has been the album’s lasting impact on you?
The album started a path that I am still on today. It’s still taking me to new destinations and through new adventures. The biggest thing it brought me was meeting Bebo and getting to know him as a person and tour with him.