By Angela Millan-Epstein
Ruben Blades’ concert was the perfect refreshment for a summer night in Hartford. The six-time Grammy winner, as well as a multifaceted artist and activist, attracted a very enthusiastic crowd that sang with him non-stop during his concert at the Bushnell Center for the Arts on Saturday night.
Singer, songwriter, actor, lawyer and politician, the Panamanian sang a variety of his famous songs that chronicle some of the Latin American pain during the time of dictatorships and prevalent racism and sexism. Padre Antonio y el Monaguillo Andres, for instance, tells the story of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Salvadorian priest assassinated in 1984 by death squads serving the military Cardinal Romero denounced for their violence against farm workers and the poor.
Blades, whose musical career started in the mail room of Fania Records (the company that lined-up the best names in Caribbean music for over a decade) began in NYC after obtaining his degree in political science and law in his native Panama. The writer of El Cantante one more time shared with the public his unusual combination of talents and had people dancing with his thoughtful and intellectual lyrics and sounds.
In his repertoire, the 52-year-old Harvard graduate integrated Ojos de Perro Azul, a song written about his interpretation of one of Colombian Nobel Prize Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories. The song was released in 1987 in Agua de Luna on an album which reached “zero commercial success”. Blades recalled; “I think we sold 5 albums, Garcia Marquez bought three and I bought two.”
There is no doubt Blades’ show at the Bushnell was a success — the house was full. The guayaberas were worn in many colors and the hats were mostly white; the dresses were low cut and the faces were smiling. The audience was a mix of Latinos from different countries, and Anglos exposed to his music or his movies. Among his many film appearances are Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, where he played Mexican artist Diego Rivera and Once Upon a Time in Mexico with Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas.
Years ago when Blades — who was offered parts in several movies and television series — rejected an offer to play a drug dealer to be on ”Miami Vice”, he asked with contempt at the time, “When are we going to stop playing the drug addict, the pimp and the whore?”
Blades has also been a man of Broadway, heading the cast in singer/songwriter Paul Simon’s first Broadway musical The Capeman, based on a true story about a violent youth who becomes a poet in prison, which also starred Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario.
His elegance and great sense of humor entertained and pleased his audience in Hartford well. With such a background and samples from different countries, Blades quickly made the Peruvians, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and other nationalities scream with songs like Todos Vuelven or Buscando America.
The big “missing” of the night was Desapariciones (Disappearings), the song he wrote abut the tortured, assassinated and missing people during the dictatorships in Latin America. Disappearing and torturing people has been a widespread practice used by regimes of both the right and left, although Blades’ song makes a particular reference to the missing people in Argentina and Uruguay during the right military governments that overthrew elected presidents in the 1960s. “Where do the disappeared go? Look in the water and in the bushes” Blades sings, which became an anthem in many Latin American universities.
But without a doubt El Cantante, the song that would become Puerto Rican’s Hector Lavoe’s signature son,g was a big hit of the night. It was also reminiscent of the song written by Blades and interpreted by Lavoe is one of his old-time best stories that ended in the movies with singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and her former husband singer Marc Anthony.
The closing song of the night was Pedro Navaja, which had the audience at his feet. The story of a criminal, Pedro Navaja is one of the most recognized songs thought Hispanic America, from Canada to Patagonia. The story, although set in New York City, is an expose of life-in-el-Barrio, the Spanish neighborhoods of America where poverty, crime and drugs are a part of life. The song is also a depiction of the stories common to Latin American countries. It deals with life, death and the unexpected with dark humor.
Just like in Bertolt Brech’s The Three penny Opera, Blades’ Pedro Navaja is a criticism to capitalism and its impact on the lives of ordinary people.
The night was quite a recital where the name of the son in Spanish was Pedro Navaja and the name of the song in English was Pedro Navaja.
(Photo by Franca Mental via Flickr)