En español | On a sunny Los Angeles afternoon several years ago, Panamanian singer and salsa legend Rubén Blades grabbed a boom box and proceeded to play a song from a new album he was working on. Unlike the lush, progressive Afro-Caribbean sound that Blades is known for, the track in question marked a surprising departure in style: a lilting Cuban sonitalicize son, anchored on the rustic sound of guitars and soft percussion, his soulful voice the absolute center of attention. (Son is a style of Cuban dance music, considered the basis of salsa.)
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— Rubén Blades
"I'm recording these songs here at home, building up my own studio, recording whenever I feel like it," Blades said, modestly pointing out a small music room across the hallway.
Soon after, though, he decided to push both his musical endeavors and a lucrative acting career aside in favor of public service. In 2004 he was named Panama's minister of tourism. But he promised he would return to music at the end of his term.
In the intervening years, many music industry insiders questioned whether Blades, 61, would keep his promise and return to the career that turned him into an international celebrity. Last year he kept his word, coming back to the music industry with a vengeance.
When his assignment with the Panamanian government ended in 2009, he sold his Los Angeles home and moved to New York with his wife, singer Luba Mason. Blades then launched a massive tour throughout the Americas that saw him reunited with his seminal eighties combo Seis Del Solar. At the same time, he released the homemade recordings of son-based material, titled Cantares del Subdesarrollo. The album has done remarkably well as a digital download. But that's not all.
"I have tons of projects in the works," Blades says. "I'm acting in movies again — just got a part on a musical-themed film that will be directed by a Latino filmmaker. As far as the music goes, I plan to continue recording albums, unifying the work that I've been doing for the past 40 years: an album of boleros, another one of tangos recorded in Buenos Aires, and a collaboration with [veteran salsero] Cheo Feliciano. I'm also thinking of writing my autobiography."
Cultural icon that he is, Blades enjoys a sterling reputation all over the Americas. But the entertainment business has changed drastically during the years he was absent. Plagued by Internet piracy, the emergence of new genres such as reggaetón, and the slow death of CDs as a viable financial model, the music industry is experiencing a huge identity crisis.
Next: Q&A with Blades. >>