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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"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.
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Does Blades have what it takes to survive in this brave new world?
The way he sees it, he's at least willing to give it a try.
"The changes have been dramatic," he admits, "but let's take the album that I am planning with Cheo Feliciano as an example. I'm sure it will sell some copies. It will also serve as a vehicle to get Cheo and me on the road."
Fully aware that concert performances are where the money is for contemporary musicians, Blades is planning to perform live at venues for an extended period of time, beginning with a possible residency at a theater in New York City.
"The dynamics are different now than 30 years ago," agrees Oscar Hernández, the keyboard player on the classic Seis Del Solar albums and musical director on Blades's current tour. "But artists like Rubén, Tony Bennett, Sting, and Herbie Hancock will never be forgotten. Their output transcends time, and intelligent fans will always appreciate good music, as long as you put it out there."
Being away, though, has not been entirely painless for Rubén Blades the musician. Even though a recent collaboration with Puerto Rican reggaetón duo Calle 13 exposed his voice to a new generation of listeners, many music fans out there are simply too young to remember his name.
But was his involvement in politics worth it?
"Absolutely, and for many different reasons," he says. "I emerged from this experience knowing that the system can indeed function. Sure, many things can still be changed, and everyone is not always on the same page. But it was important for me to do this. For five years, I put everything else on hold and devoted myself to public service. I received international awards for my work, and tourism in Panama grew notably. Professionally, it was very satisfying. Basically, I was a lawyer for five years, something I had never done before."
Blades, who was also a presidential candidate in Panama during the 1990s, has the education to support his political activity. In 1985, he earned a law degree from Harvard.
Not coincidentally, he will soon begin a long-term project of donating his personal archive of private papers, unreleased recordings, and assorted memorabilia to the Loeb Music Library at Harvard.
"The Rubén Blades Archives lends seriousness to a popular music genre such as salsa," says Donna Guerra, a curatorial assistant at the library's Archive of World Music. "We're happy that the Harvard Music Library has the opportunity to house Latino music archives. Mr. Blades came to visit the collection last year. He appeared very grateful that we're keeping all those materials available to people."
Moving to New York has helped Blades in his effort to begin again. In fact, it was in the Big Apple that his career took off during the late 1970s.
"I feel younger here," he concludes. "Everything seems familiar to me in this city. I feel like I'm a young guy again. With less hair on my head, perhaps, but still a young guy."
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