Arts & Culture » Theater Critic's Choice

Ruben Blades

by

comment

RUBEN BLADES

Panamanian Ruben Blades has spent his entire career smashing preconceptions about salsa music; while most everyone else sang about corporeal pleasures and disappointments, he decried Latin American dictatorships and the corrosive effects of the United States' cultural hegemony; while most everyone else held salsa traditions tight to their chests, he happily incorporated outside influences. A Harvard-trained lawyer, in the late 80s he took up acting, winning roles in the films Mo' Better Blues and The Milagro Beanfield War, among others; in 1994 he ran for president of Panama and placed third. Since parting ways with Elektra Records in the early 90s he hasn't received much coverage by the mainstream media--he was a critical darling in the 80s and his movie career only added to the allure--but he hasn't stopped recording, and now, in support of his terrific new Tiempos (Sony Discos) he's touring the U.S. for the first time in nine years. He continues to buck stylistic orthodoxy: the core of his new band is the young Costa Rican outfit Editus--violinist Ricardo Ramirez, guitarist Edin Solis, and percussionist Carlos Vargas--which favors an urbane mix of Latin jazz and classical filigree. While some of the album's instrumental selections and interludes suggest smooth jazz (thanks in large part to Gerardo Rojas's bland soprano sax melodies), by and large the restrained ensemble sound suits Blades's soulful singing and his contemplative songs. Most of the tunes are driven by Afro-Cuban rhythms, but instruments like the accordion and the Brazilian berimbau (the musical bow used in capoeira) color the sometimes percolating, sometimes somber grooves. While the album is streaked with politics--"20 de diciembre" remembers the Panamanians who died the night the U.S. invaded the country to collect Noriega, "Sicarios" gets inside the head of a political assassin as he plans a hit, and "Hipocresia" bluntly essays the increasing lack of principle in people's lives--he's no didact. Writing about personal anguish ("Dia a dia") as eloquently as he does political strife, Blades rarely offers the black-and-white reductions most pop songs fall back on. For this performance he'll front a 13-piece band that includes the members of Editus. Friday, 8 PM, Club Palladium, upstairs at Tropicana, 2047 N. Milwaukee; 312-421-5121 or 312-559-1212. PETER MARGASAK

Add a comment