Words by Chris Moss
Rubén Blades is good at lots of things: singing, acting, writing salsa hits, being Panama’s tourism minister, campaigning (against Sun City and on behalf of Amnesty), playing jazz guitar, and hanging out with the likes of Lou Reed and U2. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that at the age of 65 he should bring out an album of tangos. It’s a reflective, nostalgic genre, and has pan-continental appeal. But Blades and his long-time collaborator Carlos Franzetti set themselves a formidable task, choosing not to cover classics or compose new songs, but to tango-ize Blades’ own work. Thus we get wonderful hybrids of ‘Pedro Navaja’, a Latin American ‘Mack the Knife’-type street song, which Blades co-wrote with Willie Colón in 1978, as well as social conscience song ‘Pablo Pueblo’ and the lilting ‘Paula C’. A stylish and lush string-dominated arrangement, slick and rotund vocal delivery and a very clear sense of purpose make the package convincing.
Wisely, Blades doesn’t ape the grittier, gruffer styles of Buenos Aires legends like Edmundo Rivero or Roberto Goyeneche. He’s more like a theatre performer, with a panache all his own. It’s a beguiling, sometimes very beautiful mix, and, backed by the very Argentinian sound of the Leopoldo Federico Orchestra, Blades seems very much at ease in the passionate, pained, poetic universe of tango.