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The San Francisco Chronicle
India Burning Again / Salsa Singer Rebounds From Series Of Setbacks
By Jonathan Curiel
March 16, 2003
She just turned 33, but it seems that salsa singer Linda Caballero -- better known as La India, or just India -- has already experienced a lifetime of professional and personal challenges, setbacks, triumphs and new identities. It helps that India has a sense of humor about her ups and downs, and that she's currently riding a new wave of success that has made her, well, happy.
"I'm singing better than I've ever sung in my life," she says in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico, where she had given a concert.
On Saturday night, India will perform in San Francisco as part of SFJAZZ's "Latin New York: A Salsa Dance Party" at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. She is the world's top-selling female salsa singer, a firebrand who is idolized for her powerful, rapturous voice and her sway with words, as on her latest hit "Seduceme," where she sings, "Excite me with your kisses of honey . . . Seduce me."
India has always been interested in the connections between jazz and salsa, which was born in the Latin diaspora that settled in New York. In 1996, she recorded "Jazzin'," an album of jazz standards with Tito Puente and the Count Basie Orchestra. It had been a dream of hers since she listened to Puente as a teenager growing up in the Bronx.
"At 14 and 15, I used to listen to Tito Puente, Dave Valentine and everything that was happening with American jazz. I love it," she says.
On Saturday, India will perform many of the tropical/salsa hits that are her trademark, including "Seduceme," and will likely do some of her early dance numbers, such as "Love and Happiness" and "Dancing in the Fire."
"My style of singing is very much Latin jazz meets Latin and a little bit of rhythm and blues," she says. "When I do ballads, my fans love it. They want to listen to my classics. They want to party."
Five years ago, India was hardly in shape to party. She clashed with an executive at RMM -- her record label at the time -- who wanted her to lose weight. India refused, though she didn't like the extra pounds she had put on (at her heaviest, she tipped the scales at almost 200 pounds). She has since dropped down to 140 pounds and plans to shed 15 more pounds, and she's exercising regularly and eating better. She also had surgery to remove excess fat. Beforelosing weight, India experienced pain in her knees after performances because the extra bulk made it harder to dance.
"It was really difficult," she says. "No one really likes to see fat women singing. It's about having a beautiful figure and talent. And I lost my figure. It was overwhelming for people in the industry to see me blow up that way when I was looking good. From 1997 through 1999, I had gained so much. People don't realize how something like weight gain can make you sad. Losing weight has changed my life. If you can take control of your life, you can lose weight. And a little help from a doctor ain't bad, either."
As she says that, India laughs at herself. She laughs a lot in conversation, even about sensitive topics, such as her sometimes- traumatic childhood. When India was 7, her father left the family after a history of violence against her mother. After that, India's mother had difficulty holding onto a regular job, and the family kept getting evicted from their apartments, India has said. To earn money, India began singing professionally at age 15. Within several years, she went from doing backup vocals in a hip-hop group to a solo career. Her early albums were produced by "Little" Louie Vega, a well-known Latin music figure whom she married and then divorced. They are still friends.
"We continue working with one another -- thank God," India says.
As she speaks on the phone from Puerto Rico, her father can be heard in the background. She has forgiven him for his past transgressions, saying, "Thank God I did that -- that I was smart enough and mature enough to move on. We have a fabulous relationship now."
India says she owes much of her success to her maternal grandmother, who raised her for several years while her mother got her life together. It was her grandmother who nicknamed her India. India, who is darker-skinned than her sisters, loved the name and adopted it -- not just among friends but professionally. Today, India has fans from the Indian subcontinent and all over the world, as evidenced by the proliferation of Web sites devoted to her songs.
In the past decade, several of India's releases have reached No. 1 on Billboard magazine's charts. Two weeks ago, "Seduceme" had the top spot on Billboard's "Hot Latin Tracks" poll, which meant it was getting more radio play than any other Latin song, beating out such tracks as Shakira's "Que Me Quedes Tu" and Enrique Iglesias' "Quizas."
There were years where her songs weren't that popular and her fans wondered when she would record again.
"This is not an easy business," says India, who now lives in New Jersey. "You can really be big, and then you can disappear tomorrow.
"I'm wiser," she adds. "I'm stronger and I'm happier. In my music and my life, I'm honest with my feelings, and people appreciate that. That's just the way I am."