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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1297

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Rubén Blades: Mundo
by George Graham

(Columbia 84625 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/2/2002)

For me the World Music scene remains one of the hotbeds of creativity. Not only do the sounds of other cultures make for intriguing listening, but the sometimes unlikely combinations that musicians undertake can be delightfully surprising, if pulled off well. This week we have a superb new recording by a veteran World musician, whose background is in Latin American music, but whose new album spans a remarkably wide range of influences. The CD is appropriately named Mundo, the Spanish word for "world," and it's by Rubén Blades.

Rubén Blades himself is a fascinating figure. A Panamanian native and Harvard Law School graduate, Blades has had a career as an actor, has long been a social activist, and was a presidential candidate in Panama. His collaboration with Willie Colon in the late 1970s yielded the best-selling salsa single of all time, Pedro Nevaja. During the 1980s, Blades and his group Seis Del Solar continued to enjoy success across Latin America, and also in the US. Though completely fluent in English from years living in the US, Blades insists on recording exclusively in Spanish, and also steadfastly refuses to make music videos, despite his acting career, feeling that they distract from the music and message. In recent years, Blades has become more eclectic, and has been working with a group of young musicians, some classically-trained, called Editus Ensemble, who also appeared with him on Blades' Grammy-winning 1999 album Tiempos.

Blades began working on Mundo about two years ago. At first, he was interested in experimenting with the combination of salsa rhythms with Celtic sounds, but soon began to cast his net more widely. He says that he started to draw lines on a map, extending from northeast Africa to Asia Minor, to Turkey, then West to Europe and on to America, drawing influences from styles from those locales, and even incorporating a little Australian digeridoo and a large orchestra. The rhythmic undercurrent remains the infectious Latin American beat, but the combination of influences is quite remarkable. There's even a version of the Irish chestnut Danny Boy given a treatment that includes both bagpipes and timbales. Once again, Blades avoids the usual lyrical topics of pop songs, often taking on social issues in his lyrics, translations for which are provided in the CD booklet.

Editus Ensemble is an eleven piece group, with a prominent violinist, two trombones, two percussionists in addition to the drummer, plus piano, bass drums and guitar. In addition, there are numerous guests including a vocal quartet called Boca Livre from Brazil who add a distinctive touch. The level of musicianship is impressive throughout this recording, which was made primarily in Costa Rica and Brazil.

Opening is a piece in a more or less gentle salsa style called Estampa, which is translated as "Profile." The lyrics serve as a kind of synopsis of the CD, speaking of how we are all one people, despite being from places as diverse as Iran and Scotland. Down inside, he says, our DNA building blocks are all the same. <<>> Toward the end of the lengthy piece, the orchestra makes a somewhat unexpected appearance. <<>>

That leads into an interesting choice for a cover song, a Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays composition First Circle which is given a fascinating treatment by the members of Boca Livre, who also appeared on an album with Yes' Jon Anderson a while ago. <<>>

The Celtic/Latino fusion that was Blades' original premise for the CD is highlighted on Primogenio, or "Beginnings." It again refers to the unity of the human race, with common roots in Africa. Musically it's a wonderful cultural melange with bagpipes, salsa conga drums, and some African rhythms. <<>>

The African influence comes to the fore on the track called Jiri Son Bali, based on a traditional melody from Mali. Another vocal group called De Boca en Boca appears on the track. They sound rather authentically African, but are actually from Argentina. <<>> Though the piece later takes a turn toward to American-style salsa. <<>>

Yet another musical direction is taken on Bochinches, or "Gossip." Blades wrote lyrics to a piece by jazz musician Walter Flores, who appears on the album programming the synthesizers. Blades writes that it took a flamenco direction rather unexpectedly. The mixture of flamenco and salsa, though both from Spanish speaking countries, is rather rare. <<>>

Blades adapts another existing song, Consideracion, or "Consideration" by the Brazilian composer/performer Gilberto Gil. The gist of the optimistic lyrics comes in a line that translates as "Your life will depend of the breadth of your imagination." The vocal quartet Boca Livre again appears, in the creative, sophisticated, jazzy arrangement. <<>>

Also featuring a Brazilian beat is El Capitan Y la Sirena, or "the Captain and the Mermaid," a re-telling of the old sea legend of a ship's captain who was rescued from a shipwreck by a mermaid. Blades sneaks in a bit of the Australian digeridoo in this attractive, danceable piece. <<>>

The track that perhaps most epitomizes the Celtic/salsa fusion that Blades originally had in mind for the CD is the stereotypical Irish song, Danny Boy. The English lines are sung by Luba Mason. Blades dedicates the song to the emergency workers, police and firemen who perished in the World Trade Center disaster. <<>> Toward the end, Blades and company prove how compatible a jig and salsa can be. <<>>

Veteran Panamanian salsa composer and performer Rubén Blades has created the most ambitious recording in his more than two-decade career. The title Mundo or "world" is very apt. The mixture of Latin American sounds with such diverse influences a Celtic and Middle Eastern, makes for a thoroughly absorbing and engaging blend that is also very attractive and frequently danceable. Musically, the CD is both highly creative, and superbly performed. Blades' excellent supporting group Editus Ensemble and the added guests fuse the seemingly diverse influences with aplomb, and really bring it to life. While Blades has always had a following in the US, his insistence on recording in Spanish only, will likely limit his following among English-speaking American audience who listen to the words before the music. But regardless of the language, this is excellent music whose creativity in successfully mixing genres is most impressive. And the CD booklet's English translations should help ease the language barrier.

Sonically, we'll give the CD an "A." The large and diverse group is well-recorded, and the dynamic range, while not at an audiophile level, is better than many pop recordings. Playing the CD on a good system further enhances its rhythmic appeal.

Rubén Blades has been one of the most popular salsa musicians around. On this CD, he goes well beyond that style to create one of the most enjoyable and substantial World Music releases of the year.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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