Linda Caballero, better known as La India, has been giving a powerful voice to women in genres traditionally dominated by men — first with freestyle, then salsa — since she was 14. Three decades later, she’s still singing and joining reggaeton star Ivy Queen on a one-night-only concert in Chicago this Saturday.
She’s also in the midst of recording a new album, which is written and produced by Mexican singer-composer superstar Juan Gabriel.
“He’s a dear friend,” says Caballero in a deep, slightly raspy speaking voice. “He’s always been someone I wanted to work with. Two years ago, I did a romantic mariachi ballad with Juan Gabriel. It was amazing working with him…He loves music so much.”
She also loves music — as much as the air she breathes, it seems. She goes back in time in an instant, remembering how it all started in the Bronx, NY, and where music producer “Little Louie” Vega discovered her through a friend.
“He gave me a microphone while he spun his music, and I would improvise — he saw talent in me,” says Caballero. “I was 14, and I was having a great time. I loved the 80’s…rock, dance music…We were just happy with having fun and aspiring towards where we wanted to go.”
Under the guidance of Vega, she released her first single, “Dancing on Fire,” and later “Lover that Rocks,” which made it to the Top 5 singles spot under the dance genre. This led to her first freestyle album in 1989, “Breaking Night.”
“I wasn’t shy,” she says. “That’s what they loved about me — I wasn’t afraid, and my ability to improvise.”
In her 20′s, Caballero says she started feeling like the industry was viewing her as the “Latin Madonna” and urged her to “be more white.”
“Everything was sounding the same…not growing,” says Caballero, reminiscing about her freestyle peers Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Lisette Menendez. “It started going under in pace and quality, and I decided to walk away. I told Louie we need to do more current stuff.”
She ended up marrying Vega, the man who discovered her, although they divorced years ago.
“He trusted my vision, and we decided to walk away,” says Caballero, who started collaborating with Tito Puente. “It was the beginning of where I was going with Latin music.”
Composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri, however, gave her the strongest nudge into the Latin music arena with the opportunity to record her first album in Spanish, “Llegó La India vía Eddie Palmieri”/”Here Comes La India via Eddie Palmieri.”
“My first love [though] is rock and roll,” Caballero makes sure to add. “Not a lot of people know about it, except my boyfriend…Janis Joplin was my idol…She shelves it out. I’m like Joplin — when I’m live, I have a lot of range in my voice, and I have the heart and I have the grit — the rock and roll feeling…”
But even though Caballero thoroughly enjoys listening to everything from hip hop to country music, she is not one to forget her Latina roots. She even returned to live in her native Puerto Rico for the past 13 years. She used to live in New Jersey, where she was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park.
“Celia Cruz, she was my girl!” says Caballero, who did many collaborations with the Queen of Salsa before her death. “She would say say, ‘If you keep it up, you’re going to make it — be true to yourself.’ She would always hold my hand before a concert.”
She says everything Celia did, she did with a lot of love.
“She taught me not to be afraid to love,” says Caballero. “She would say, ‘Let’s love each other and have a great time, there’s no time for hate.’ At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”
That’s also what she appreciates so much about the late Pop King, Michael Jackson.
“Michael Jackson was putting out the message of love, and people used to say he was crazy, but I would say no,” says Caballero.
Last year, she was one of a few Latino musicians chosen by music producer Tony Succar to be a part of his upcoming album and documentary, entitled “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson” – expected to be completed in June, in time for the anniversary of the pop star’s death.
“This is when all Latinos come together for the love he’s given throughout the years,” says Caballero about the Jackson tribute arranged by Succar. “It was really magical…”
Succar calls La India “the most important woman salsa singer icon after Celia Cruz” — one of the reasons he chose her to participate in his project, besides the fact that she understands Michael Jackson. She grew up listening to him.
“The way La India can connect with songs, her artistic feel and passion for music — this is what allows her to give you goose bumps as soon as she sings one word,” he says. “She actually lives the lyrics, she lives what she’s saying…”
Caballero says after all these years, she still believes in her music, as well as herself.
“That’s how you make it happen,” she says is what she tells her fans. “I feel that I made my dream come true — that’s what I feel when I sing salsa.”
Originally published on NBCLatino.com.