Back at the atrium just south of 63rd Tuesday night to hear Ruben Blades think on his feet and entertain an adoring, sold-out crowd with philosophical insights and some hilarious yarns from a career full of surprises. In a one-on-one discussion with NYU professor Carlos Chirinos, the iconic Panamanian-born salsero was in a characteristically expansive mood. Which makes sense, considering that Blades is one of the greatest lyricists and musical storytellers to emerge in the 20th century.
Blades has a sense of irony as sharp as his name (his grandfather was British; it’s pronounced that way). One of the night’s funniest moments was when Blades recalled how, as a teenage law student in Panama City, he got called in to the dean’s office after being spotted crooning at an after-hours spot. Forced to choose between music and school, he chose…drum roll…school! But after the 1968 coup d’etat there, Blades’ mom – a fine singer in her own right and a major musical influence – sent him packing to New York, to help him “stay out of trouble,” as he put it.
There he reconnected with Fania Records honcho Jerry Masucci, who’d heard Blades jamming one night at Panama City’s lone professsional studio and invited him to record at an unspecified future date. The date almost didn’t happen; when it did, Blades revealed with the hint of a sardonic grin, he didn’t consider it a success – neither the album cover nor the tracks on it have stood the test of time, he averred. Then the opening number played over the atrium’s PA, Blades intoning a disclaimer right from the first few bars: “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” As usual, Blades was looking to the future, in this case, to explaining away this gangster tale as a work of fiction so as to sidestep the attentions of the authoritarian regime in power at home.
Blades relished recounting how many influential DJs thought that his monster hit Pedro Navaja was destined for commercial failure. But more than taking pride in how the over-seven-minute song paved the way for longer songs on latin radio – just as Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone had helped transform the AM rock format – Blades recounted how it was arguably the first salsa hit to feature a heroine who kills in self-defense rather than being cast as villain or victim. Blades also couldn’t resist getting a dig or two in at the critics who assailed arranger Luis Ortiz – “who’d only written charts for about two thousand songs,” Blades recalled – for taking Blades’ advice to break the clave and bring down the rhythm in a crucial moment of suspense.
And in the context of 2017, it was something of a shock to hear how relatively freely Blades was given the green light to record his pioneering song cycle Buscando America, which is esssentially an album-length short story. That a large record conglomerate would allow one of their top-selling artists to have any creative control at all, let alone put out a defiantly populist avant garde suite without a hit single was almost as much of a pipe dream in 1984 as it would be now. Again, Blades had the last word over the critics and the naysayers.
Otherwise, Blades momentarily touched on but didn’t go into much detail about his acting – a side gig he fell into, more or less, which snowballed from there. He also didn’t expand on his political work, including his Panamanian Presidential campaign or his job as Minister of Tourism there, which put his music on ice for six years. What is the future for latin music? Chirinos wanted to know. Bright, and cross-pollinated, was Blades’ answer. He’s got a grand total of six separate albums currently in the works, as well as a theatre piece and another possible run at politics on his home turf. Now well into his sixties, Blades hardly looks the part of an eminence grise: there’s plenty of fight left in him.
This evening was part of a new collaboration between Lincoln Center and the NYU Music and Social Change Lab, launched last year.