Nicaragua: Luis Abraham Delgadillo Remembers Alfonso Zelaya



For at least a decade, leading up to his death in December of 1961, Nicaraguan composer Luis Abraham Delgadillo wrote a regular column in the Managua newspaper La Noticia. Its title was simple and descriptive—In the Style of a Suite—alluding to the Baroque musical form that brings together an overture followed by a number of dances. Indeed, Delgadillo’s column reflected the spirit of the suite in that he sometimes presented various subjects under one headline while in others he kept to a single idea, and then unfolded various concepts.

My favorite headline from his column, found so far, is “Turn Off That Funeral Music,” in which he talked about the difficulty that classical music had in competing with more popular styles. And that was in Managua in the 1950s.

Another memorable column is “Forgotten Times…,” recalling the musical culture in Managua from a quarter of a century previous, as well as the notable musical child of former Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya, whose youngest son, Alfonso, was a recognized vaudeville and classical pianist, and later Hollywood actor.

Delgadillo gives us an apt introduction to [Carlos] Alfonso Zelaya.

With pleasure I will tell you how a great artist began to triumph in New Orleans. Alfonso Zelaya arrived in the United States as a very young man, thirsty for glory and adventure—a remarkable bohemian! The Yanks are [nothing more than] grown children who love novelty. Thus, on a bright day, Alfonso Zelaya gave a concert in a New Orleans theater where he presented himself in an original way: “A double musician. A stunning concert by an artist and son of President Zelaya of Nicaragua…” With much curiosity aroused, the public came to hear the double musician… And then, a surprising moment, Alfonso entered in a determined manner and proceeded directly to the piano. (In reality, my countryman was obese, but this is not unusual and is common.) After sitting down, he took a metal whistle out of his pocket. With the right hand he began to play a folk melody on the whistle, while he accompanied himself on the piano with the other.

This peculiar sight induced laughter, but a sincere laughter in sympathy with the artist. After finishing, Alfonso spoke to the audience in English and said,”here is your double musician…” He garnered great applause and thenceforth was known as Don Zelaya, whose moniker came to be seen in lights in front of many a theater and varieté. Alfonso Zelaya was the “Savage Liszt” of Nicaragua, a name I affectionately gave him, and this without being more than self-taught—by ear—immortalized as a musical genius.

Such is the worth of human genius!!!!

[Luis Abraham Delgadillo, La Noticia (Managua), September 29, 1956]

Piano rectial announcement for "Don Zelaya" in the New Orleans Times Picayune (June, 1920).

Piano recital announcement for “Don Zelaya” in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper (June, 1920).

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