Ruben Blades has always made music that is a record of his time. In representing the soul of a marginal Latin American culture that has since moved into the mainstream, his great albums of the Seventies and Eighties were catalysts for both the global popularization of salsa and for contemporary crossover trends. So what time is it now? Emerging from the singer's own soul-searching journeys into the barrio and the world beyond, Blades's latest CD, Mundo, is a daring production that speaks to this turbulent new global century. Blades deems Mundo "both a musical fusion and a call against racism."
"We really are the same people. The color of skin and the way we look is just a matter of geography," says Blades while recording the album in Costa Rica in the summer of 2001. "With these rhythms we present the argument that humanity is a whole."
Bagpipes, accordion, tres, didjeridoo, Cuban percussion, a Brazilian vocal group, and a Costa Rican classical ensemble combine to showcase a diversity of sounds that, Blades says, "connect without contradictions."
"African, Celt, Spanish, Caribbean, Hindu, Gypsy, there's all this mix," he adds. "What I'm trying to tap into is the ancestral memory. I think we all have information given in our composition by our ancestors wherever they came from, and that information is not just in terms of culture or languages but in terms of music: What appears to be different in reality is part of the same original plan. People will have a visceral reaction to these rhythms."
On Mundo, Blades attempted to go further than other intercontinental musical efforts, intricately weaving arrangements in order to prove that "instruments which would seem totally incompatible can indeed work together, coherently and in harmony."
Sounds unlikely in theory, but good in practice. Blades proves his point beautifully on tracks such as "Primogenio," which combines bagpipes and accordion with guaguanco rhythms (really). A version of the Irish evergreen "Danny Boy" also succeeds swingingly with Afro-Cuban percussion, salsa flute lines, and bagpipes. In the liner notes, Blades quips that this version, by Broadway vocalist Luba Mason, "can be danced in a production of Riverdance, or in a salsa club in Cali or Caracas."
Several of the strongest songs on Mundo are inspired by Gypsy culture -- both its musical passion and its nomadic history of persecution and poverty. The flamenco-based "Bochinches" and the love song "Ella" are backed by rich, spicy rhythms Blades describes as "Moroccan-gypsy-salsa." Powerful, prideful anthem "Parao!" is inspired by writer Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing, a history of the Gypsies in Eastern Europe. Blades, it turns out, has a wonderful way with flamenco's deep song; it's a direction he should further explore.
In his lyrics, Blades, as always, proves himself a master of the anecdotal, inspirational song. He calls for peace and perspective in Latin America and the rest of the world through little allegories of the honorable, hopeful, and determined who live in all of us.
The spiritual tone of Mundo, with its lush melodies and global influences, is reminiscent of Blades's previous album, Tiempos (1999). Going further afield in its musical exploration, the new release is more upbeat with lyrics more hopeful in spirit. The lyrical sound on both albums is rooted in the work of Editus, a group of classically trained musicians from Costa Rica whom Blades met at an environmental conference in the Nineties and has worked with since. While critically lauded, Tiempos was not a commercial success. Not surprisingly, its introspective flavor put off some of Blades's salsa fans, and mainstream radio stayed away from it.
"My work is not about selling music, it's about making good music," Blades says dismissively. "This new album probably won't be played on the radio either. Radio caters to a certain mediocrity they feel represents the general taste. I don't agree. People are opening to accepting different kinds of music, but you have this radio that won't play certain music. And that's a larger piece of crap when you consider I've been playing for over twenty years."
It's Blades's willingness to tell it like it is and his courage to experiment, and even fail, that has made his best work so influential and enduring. And so it is on Mundo. For all the very fine orchestral maneuvers on the CD, the biggest draw is Blades himself. That may be the album's only failing. When guest vocal groups Boca Livre and Argentines De Boca en Boca take over, they can't live up to Blades's persona; their two tracks amount to pale interludes before returning to the main event. Like the actor he also is (the screen veteran will appear in two upcoming movies), Blades easily elicits a range of emotions from his audience. To tell his compelling stories, he slides from flamenco to salsa to spoken-word, testifying even as he croons.
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