Ruben Blades's Tiempos may surprise fans who identify the singer with the socially conscious salsa that was his trademark in the Eighties, a time when his albums served to introduce more than a few Anglos to Latin music. His introspective new release consists of fourteen interrelated tracks that, at times, could best be described as lyric poems set to Latin symphonies played by a classically trained ensemble from Costa Rica. Bitter sugar throughout, the album seamlessly integrates a spectrum of musical styles, while the Spanish lyrics meditate on the more difficult endeavor of uniting people. In some tracks, the titles of which include "Hypocrisy," "Belief," "Illusions," and "Crossroads," Blades decries society's rampant corruption, mediocrity, and the backbiting pretense of what he refers to as our "ambidextrous world." After a rough bout in the political ring in Panama (where he unsuccessfully ran for president) and a recent divorce, Blades is ready to reflect on life lessons and indulge in some emotional catharsis.
"There's always time to reinvent yourself. You can start again," reasons Blades, on the phone from New York City. "Don't say your life is this way because of destiny, that really bothers me; you make your life that way. You have to think, This is the scenario we have now but we can change it." Tiempos reflects that inner turmoil: Produced over two years, the singer discarded a first version of the recording and started again, writing entirely new songs and arrangements. Blades has often been called the Latin Bruce Springsteen, and Tiempos, with its moody self-examination, is the Panamanian performer's Tom Joad. The record's intense ambiance is orchestrated by EDITUS, a group of Costa Rican musicians that Blades met at an environmental conference in 1997. Trained at a classical conservatory, the members are virtuoso students of the relationships between international popular styles. The young Costa Ricans have released several CDs of instrumental music independently. Blades thought they were worthy of widespread attention, and decided to work with the group, recording Tiempos with them in a studio in San José.
"I think the classical background of the musicians has given the text more emotion and it allows it to have a deeper impact on the psyche," Blades says. "You're not only listening to the lyrics; the arrangement of the music is taking you beyond to a very intimate place." Despite its quiet character, Tiempos is not without a consistent Latin groove. Here the musicians travel the rhythms of Latin America, making use of a variety of pan-Latin percussion instruments, including congas, gourds, cowbells, claves (wooden rhythm sticks), and cajones (wooden boxes that are beaten like drums). A saxophone imparts cool jazz riffs, and silvery chimes and swooshing rainsticks add earthy effects. There's a sense of spirituality to the music, a tone of universal reflection and ritual invoked by melancholy violin, flamenco handclaps, conga intonations, and vocals full of plaintive Celtic airs.
"I've been trying to establish a connection with Europe that hasn't been explored in terms of Latin American music," Blades explains. "I've begun to explore our Celt background from Ireland, Galicia, and the Basque region in the north of Spain with flamenco, and I'm also trying to understand more Arabic music from the East. Accordion, violin, and guitar are not indigenous [to the Americas]; they were brought here. I'm trying to get to a type of sound that will make you react on a level of memory that's been dormant." While Blades is exploring new musical ground, his texts continue to cover familiar territory: a combination of revisionist Latin American history, streetcorner philosophy, and humanitarian hope that the singer describes as "just my thing." Blades says he first became focused on political and social issues in 1964, when the United States refused to raise the Panamanian flag at the canal zone, sparking a bloody confrontation. Although he always had musical aspirations, he studied law at the University of Panama, and later fled the nation with his family.
Soon after arriving in Miami, he left for New York City and the burgeoning salsa scene there. Siembra, which Blades recorded with Willie Colon in 1978, was the most successful Latin album of its time, selling more than a million copies. That figure has now been multiplied five times over by Ricky Martin. But Blades, who says he does not care about commercial music and cannot bear to listen to radio these days, is unimpressed with the fuss over so-called Latin pop, which, he suggests, has little to do with authentic Latin culture.
"I look at America like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs, but everyone has to keep it functioning together," Blades says. "Latin America seems foreign and exotic, but in reality it's just another part of the house. But ours is like a house where you don't know who your neighbors are. I want to know my neighbors and that's what I'm trying to do now. Let people know these are Panamanians or these are Costa Ricans, this is their music, this is what they do. We really don't get that much information on a consistent basis here that would make people aware of the richness and variety of Latin America." He pauses and then adds sharply: "Instead we get stereotyped versions of Latino culture. We don't have much presence on film or television and that has contributed to a lack of interest."
Blades has expanded that perception somewhat with his own critically lauded but widely unappreciated acting. He has appeared in numerous films and television movies, playing, for the most part, believable characters who just happen to be Hispanic. He had less success last year with the role of the grown-up version of sixteen-year-old convicted killer Salvador Agron in Paul Simon's painfully self-conscious Broadway fiasco The Capeman. In Leon Ichaso's 1985 film Crossover Dreams, he performed his most true-to-life role as Rudy Veloz, a salsa singer who dreams of breaking into the international scene -- basically, of becoming Blades.
The singer recently embarked on his first world tour in nine years, and has been pleased with the enthusiastic response his new music has received in Europe. On Sunday he appears at the James L. Knight Center with Oscar D'Leon, also a venerable veteran of the salsa scene. Both performers have previously canceled planned concerts in Miami after conservative Cuban exile activists questioned their political views on Cuba. "Politically speaking Miami has always been dicey," says Blades, who has not given a concert here in seventeen years, though he did make a brief appearance at a MIDEM 1998 showcase. "On a couple of occasions a segment of the local radio took exception to my political position and a couple of concerts had to be canceled because of threatening calls that some people made." Blades adds that he was also blackballed in Cuba after publicly suggesting that Castro should hold free elections. "I've been consistent," he notes. "I believe in free speech in Cuba, and in Miami, too."
Blades isn't anticipating any problems this time, though. Appearing with EDITUS, he will perform music from the new album, but he is not adverse to serving up some salsa for his long-time fans. "We take a couple of trombones on tour so we can play some oldies out of respect for the public," Blades says. "But I don't feel I've had to grow on just that salsa side. I think throughout the years, my audiences have learned to expect the unexpected."
Ruben Blades and Oscar D'Leon perform on Sunday, August 22 at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave. For ticket prices and other information call 305372-4634
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