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Rubén Blades Returns to the Heights

The legendary entertainer brings salsa, Afro-Cuban and world beat sounds to the Shakira generation

En español | Musician, singer, songwriter poet, actor, Harvard-trained lawyer, and, until last summer, Panama's tourism minister, Rubén Blades made a triumphant return last month to New York City, where he began his musical adventure more than three decades ago.

At the United Palace Theater, one stop on his "Todos Vuelven" (Everybody Returns) tour, Blades, 61, interwove his tales to the hot rhythms of a backup band schooled on the streets of New York, combining the sounds of salsa, Afro-Cuban, and world beat. Defying classification, he morphed each type into a collective body of work in which sentiment and substance prevailed over flash.

See also: Hispanic Heritage Awards honors Rubén Blades.

Located in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, the United Palace Theater boasts walls adorned with quotes from Reverend Ike, the flamboyant preacher whose televised sermons made him a celebrity in the 1970s. The cavernous, ornate setting for recent Neil Young and Bob Dylan concerts provided a sanctified vibe to the night's two-and-a-half-hour-plus celebration of song. And no matter how one thinks of Blades — salsa legend, movie star, or politician (he also ran unsuccessfully for president of Panama in 1994) — it was clear from his fans' reaction that what mattered most that night were the songs.

Backed by trombonist Jimmy Bosch, legendary timbale player Ralph Irizarry, and pianist/arranger Oscar Hernández (best known for his work in the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and, along with Blades, Paul Simon's ill-fated Broadway musical Capeman), the ten-piece unit created a wall of sound that was gloriously loud, brassy, and ready to spin the beat from salsa's thunderous blasts to the intimate, quiet trickle of folclórica.

Blades played off both extremes like a master, from the pompous, overblown bounce of "Plástico" on Siembra to a solo rendering of "Adán García" from his 1992 album Amor y Control. On "Plástico" the horns swirled and bounced to the rafters as Blades ended the song with a call out to Pan-American unity as "Una Sola Casa" flashed onstage. All you needed was a disco ball to complete the sonic trip back in time. On "Adán García" you could hear a pin drop in the house as Blades lightly plucked a nylon-stringed guitar.

Next: Where it all began for Blades. >>

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