Since his emergence in the mid-1970s on the New York salsa scene, Panamanian singer/songwriter Rubén Blades has enjoyed a multifaceted career that has earned him a high public profile. Throughout his career, Blades has experimented beyond salsa to incorporate socially conscious and politically charged lyrics into his polyrhythmic music. In addition, he branched off into acting where he garnered feature roles in several noteworthy films and stage productions. Trained as a lawyer, Blades earned his master's degree in international law at Harvard Law School, and in 1994 he ran for President in his native country of Panama.
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As one of the most successful and innovative artists in Latin music, Blades continues to break new ground with his recordings, including his latest Columbia release, Mundo (World), a superb collection of 14 tunes brilliantly melding Latin, Celtic, Middle Eastern, African, Afro-Cuban, jazz and flamenco into a lyrical and rhythmic soundscape. In addition to new originals by Blades, the CD includes a rendition of the Pat Metheny-Lyle Mays tune "First Circle," a Spanish version of Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil's song "Oriente" re-titled, "Consideración" ("Consideration"), the traditional Malian song "Jiri Son Bali" interpreted with a mambo beat, and the Irish classic "Danny Boy" which is given an entirely new musical flavor with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and sung by Broadway vocalist Luba Mason.
"Mundo is like a travelogue with its combination of musical styles," says the Los Angeles-based Blades, who recorded his "world" album in San Jose, Costa Rica and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "Actually, I'm amazed that something like mixing bagpipes with Latin rhythms hasn't been done before." He hastens to add that Mundo--with its rich mix of instrumentation ranging from an array of Cuban and African percussion to didgeridoo and Uilleann pipes--is also a call for unity against racism. At a news conference in Panama City to announce his 17th recording, Blades said, "Racism is absurd and my new record reflects that. We are all basically brothers and we all come from the same [origin]. Underneath our skin, our bones are the same color."
Blades explains that the Mundo project was not an exercise in conjuring up an album concept. "It wasn't something that I thought; it was something that I felt. I wasn't trying to make music that's cute. These songs come from a visceral feeling." Blades says that the foundation of the album is "that we all come from the same place and share universal memories. "I've been reading books on genetics and learning that birds, for example, inherit memories from their ancestors that help them to survive. By the same token, why shouldn't music invoke the memories of humans who migrated in all directions from the very beginning of life in Africa? These songs try to awaken those memories."
Blades cites Mundo tunes "Bochinches" ("Gossip") and "Primogenio" ("Beginnings") as integral because they "showcase instruments and arrangements from diverse cultural societies that connect without contradictions." The jazzy, flamenco-influenced "Bochinches" is an homage to the passion of gypsies while "Primogenio," he says, is "the song that I felt would give the album its direction. I wasn't interested in just layering an Irish bagpipe onto a salsa tune. I wanted the musicians to really feel the connection." Also added into the mix is a bass flute and Cuban rhythms. Blades notes, "We added the sound of the accordion and the 'tres' only to prove that instruments which seem totally incompatible can indeed work together, coherently and in harmony."
Mundo opens with the fiery "Estampa"("Profile"), a song that pays homage to the influence of Afro-Cuban music found in popular music throughout Latin America. Blades credits such legendary figures as Virgioli Marti and Eddie Palmieri. The tune's hot percussion is supplied by young talents Bobby Allende and Marc Quiñones, while Blades sings about the idea that "it is never too late to justify hope." That number is followed by the lush lyrical rendering of the Metheny-Mays tune "First Circle" featuring Brazilian vocal group Boca Livre and Costa Rican group Editus.
On "Ella"("She"), arranged by collaborator Walter Flores and featuring a scorching soprano sax part by Lalo Rojas, Blades reintroduces the gypsy-salsa feel of "Bochinches" and sings about "how difficult it is for a man to understand the support and love that a woman has to offer." The gypsy theme is continued in "Parao" ("On My Feet"), a passionate tune based on Isabel Fonseca's book "Bury Me Standing" about the plight of nomadic gypsies in 15th century Europe. Blades notes that the song makes "a statement on behalf of all those who have been victims to racial, religious, political and cultural intolerance."
Other highlights include the upbeat and joyous "Como Nosotros" ("Like You and Me") about Blades' nostalgic memories of life in Panama; the thumping/romping "El Capitan y la Sirena" ("The Captain and the Mermaid") buoyed by the background vocals of Argentinean group De Boca en Boca and a multi-percussion-accordion-didgeridoo attack; the hopeful "Sebastian" spiced by Boca Livre's vocal harmonies, Ricardo Ramírez's violin and Eric Rigler's Uilleann pipes; and the salsa tune "A San Patricio" ("To Saint Patrick"), which, as Blades notes, is for the "salseros who have listened to the whole album and waited patiently." It opens and closes atypically with Uilleann pipes and features the self-proclaimed "crazy Panamanian" exuberantly trading lines with vocalist Medoro Madera.
One of the key songs on the album is the jazzy, rhythmically rousing "La Ruta" ("The Road"). Blades says the tune sums up the overarching sentiment of Mundo: "The focus of life should be the need to emphasize our similarities by overcoming prejudice based on cultural and geographical influences. Our ancestors left us a common memory as a legacy and started creating a spiritual awakening that confronts and destroys the violence that is a product of racism and intolerance."
In the '70s and early '80s Blades was already an established and well-respected musician thanks to his six-year gig in the Fania All Stars (on the Fania record label). In 1978 he collaborated with trombonist Willie Colon on the recording of Siembra, the first million-selling salsa album, which spawned the hit "Pedro Navaja," which in turn, became the biggest selling single in salsa history. Forming his own rhythm-drive band in 1982, Blades replaced the brass section of the previous group with a more pop- and rock-influenced sound. His 1984 debut album, Buscando America (Searching for America) not only became a sensation, but further popularized Blades as an important lyricist who broached such subjects as domestic sexism and Latin American politics. "Salsa was like a subterranean music," Blades says. "People who loved to dance listened to it. I expanded the music's base with my lyrics. I drew more people into the mix who were willing to think as well as move their bodies."
In addition to finding a voice in the Latin music nueva cancion ("new song") movement, which addressed the realities of life in Latin America, Blades recorded his first all-English album, Nothing But the Truth in 1988, featuring songs written by Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and Sting. During this time, he also made a name for himself as an actor, starring in such films as "Crossover Dreams," "The Milagro Bean Field War" and "Mo' Better Blues," as well as sharing the title role with Latin singer Marc Anthony in Paul Simon's Broadway musical, "The Capeman." More recently, Blades has acted in films alongside Robert Duvall and Johnny Depp, which will be released later this year.
On the music front, Blades finds that his audience is expanding even further to encompass the children of parents who supported his earlier work. "The younger generation has been picking up on lyrics that I wrote over twenty years ago," he says proudly. "When you write carefully and honestly about life and everyday experiences, chances are your work will continue to thrive."
That's certainly the case with Mundo. As Blades points out, "This album is about honesty. It isn't about targeting certain demographics. It's not about recycling the same songs over and over again or writing with a formula. It's not clone music. I know there's an audience for this kind of music that takes a chance."
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