Panamanian singer Rubén Blades is something of a legend in the field of salsa and rightly so. He revolutionised the subject matter from fairly trite love songs to a far more engaging socio-political repertoire and did so while retaining a highly melodic rhythmic base which is the very essence of the salsa genre and burned up the dancefloors in the process. Blades worked his way up as a young low level employee for Fania records in New York, the typical trajectory for a Latin American emigrant. However, what he did next was anything buy ordinary. First, he developed his own idiosyncratic nasal-sounding voice and allied that to socially-committed lyrics that broke the mould with salsa writers. Secondly, he used the earnings raised with his success to then successfully apply for and complete a course in Law at Harvard. It is the high level of education attained that explains in part the quality of the lyrics and his ability to depict in song the everyday life as well as trials and tribulations of the Latin American emigrant that captured the hearts and minds of both the traditional salsa audience and well beyond. In each of three decades, Rubén Blades recorded definitive albums in the salsa idiom and they include: ‘Siembra’ (1978), ‘Buscando América’ (1984) and ‘Antecendente’ (1988), ‘Caminando’ (1991) and ‘Rosa de los Vientos’ (1996).
For this latest project, his first recording in several years after unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency in his native Panama, Blades has decided to completely rework some of his most endearing compositions, but in an entirely new setting, namely that of Argentine tango. Aided by arranger and musical director, Argentine Carlos Franzetti, Rubén Blades has come up with one of the most intriguing Latin American music releases of the year and one that proves beyond doubt that with careful and skilful application, musical genres can be successfully transposed. This is exemplified on the anthemic ‘Pedro Navaja’, which in the original weaved in Kurt Weill’s music of ‘Mack the Knife’. Here the ambiance is more intimate with strings and bandoneon, and gentler vocals. Originally an uptempo vehicle, ‘Juano Mayo’ is virtually unrecognisable to begin with since it has been transformed into a lilting ballad with guitar and harp and yet gradually the basic skeletal arrangement of the original is recalled. Far easier to identify is ‘Pablo Pueblo’ which is totally reinvigorated here as a languid piece with heightened dramatization, though the main theme is performed delicately. An ideal song to cover is ‘Paul C’ and again the dramatic combination of piano and bandoneon solos works wonders. It has to be stressed that this is not the first time that salsa and tango have met head on. On Eddie Palmieri’s seminal ‘White Album’ (in reference and homage to the Beatles double album recording), the Puerto Rican pianist recorded a devastating Latin-jazz take on ‘El día que me quieras’ that will remain as one of the high points of progressive salsa history. However, Rubén Blades and Carlos Franzetti have succeeded in effortlessly combining two disparate musical genres and for that too we should equally be eternally grateful.