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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

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.

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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.

Pacing the stage in beatnik black, Blades seemed to take his delivery straight off a Hollywood sound stage—slightly overdone and dramatic. He was in a playful mood for much of the night, dispensing anecdotes on health care, his start in the Fania Records mailroom making $70 a week, and his first major gig at Madison Square Garden, where he forgot the lyrics to his songs.

No such amateurism here. His commanding vocals were like an assuring voice from a long-lost best friend. "Decisiones" became a crowd sing-along as Panamanian and Dominican flags flew. "Buscando Guayaba," the closer "Pedro Navaja" that he introduced with a few verses from "Mack the Knife," and "Todos Vuelven" brought it back full-circle to the streets of New York City, where it all began for Blades.

Blades for All Seasons

Adding a highly literate take to salsa's party anthems and beats, Rubén Blades has been called the Bruce Springsteen of Latin music, as much champion of working people as supreme entertainer. His career took off in 1975, when, after a brief stint with Ray Barretto, he replaced singer Héctor Lavoe in Willie Colón's band. Blades played a major role in salsa's worldwide commercial breakthrough, performing on numerous classic albums with Colón, including Metiendo Mano!, Siembra, and Canciones del Solar de Los Aburridos.

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Once he started flying solo in 1982 with his own group, Seis del Solar, his albums stood out as some of the most overtly political works in Latin music. In 2002 Blades' Mundo, with instrumentation that included Scottish bagpipes, won the Grammy for best world music album. After a five-year hiatus while serving as Panama's minister of tourism, Blades officially returned to the stage at the 2009 Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, where his duet with Calle 13 lead singer René Pérez introduced him to a generation of fans weaned on reggaeton and Shakira. His new release, Cantares del Subdesarrollo, is a simplified, low-key affair with Blades playing most of the instruments himself.

His legacy is being preserved at the Rubén Blades Archive at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University, where Blades earned a law degree. The archive will eventually include a complete collection of albums, liner notes, concert and rehearsal audio and video recordings, sheet music and arrangements, lyrics, translations, photos, mementos, movies, and material from Blades's political career.

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