November 28, 2009


A Salsa Star Is Reborn After a Break for Politics (LARRY ROHTER, 11/28/09, NY Times)

From 2004 until this summer, Mr. Blades, who is also a lawyer with degrees from the University of Panama and Harvard, was Panama’s minister of tourism. According to government statistics, tourism generates more income for the country than does the Panama Canal, so that portfolio is an important one, and after years of criticizing those in power, Mr. Blades was eager to put his principles to the test.

“It’s not that easy to explain why I like doing so many things that seem disconnected,” he said. “But when I started writing about social issues in music and started having success with that, I felt that there was a contradiction arising from making a living out of writing about social injustice. In my mind, the only way to end that contradiction was through politics. It’s really about changing the conditions I am denouncing in my songs, and that can only be done through political work.”

That kind of willingness to veer off in unexpected directions has long been a hallmark of Mr. Blades, who manages his own career. David Maldonado, a salsa tour promoter and manager who has done business with Mr. Blades on and off for more than 25 years, said Mr. Blades was warned that he would damage his budding career when he chose in the early 1970s to go “out of sight, out of mind” and enroll at Harvard. [...]

[O]ver the years, Mr. Blades strayed further and further from that formula. He performed in Paul Simon’s failed Broadway musical “Capeman” in 1998 and early this decade recorded a pair of albums, “Tiempos” and “Mundo,” which incorporated jazz and folk elements and even, in one memorable instance, bagpipes.

“The problem with being a writer in salsa is that the genre is pretty much defined by the appeal of the music to the feet,” Mr. Blades explained. “And that’s fine. I will never put that down. That’s the way it is. But those limits, those structures, were something I was trying to break away from.”

Mr. Blades’s new CD, “Cantares del Subdesarrollo” (“Songs of Underdevelopment”) deepens that process. Many of the songs, like “Las Calles” (“The Streets”) and “Himno de los Olvidados” (“Hymn of the Forgotten”), have the politically charged lyrics for which he is famous. But the sound is stripped down and acoustic, harking back to the era before Afro-Caribbean ensembles acquired big horn sections. Mr. Blades takes a large musical role, playing guitar, tres and percussion in addition to singing.

One song attracting a lot of attention in Latin America is “País Portátil” (“Portable Country”), whose title comes from the novel of the same name by Adriano González León. The song speaks of “a place without memory/where nothing is surprising anymore/not a crime pardoned/or a charlatan as president” and laments the ascendance of “falsified heroes and mortgaged ideals.”

Because Mr. González León was a Venezuelan, there have been suggestions that Mr. Blades is writing about Hugo Chávez, the populist president of Venezuela. Mr. Blades said that, as in many of his other songs, he was describing a phenomenon common all over Latin America. But, no longer bound by the restrictions of government office, he also criticized Mr. Chávez for “insisting on adopting a system that has been demonstrably proven not to function.”

Mundo, which features the bagpipe tune also includes one of the best 9-11 tributes:

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2009 6:00 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus