Lost Tracks: Review of 'Cantares del Subdesarrollo' by Ruben Blades

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rubén Blades


There has never been an album by Rubén Blades quite like "Cantares del Subdesarrollo." Not because it's not even vaguely salsa -- Blades may be the king, but he has never tied himself to the genre -- but because it's entirely acoustic, because he plays almost every instrument and sings every single note. And because it's about, er, Cuba.

Yup, this most enigmatic of Latin American musicians has, upon finishing up five years as minister of tourism of Panama, released an album he recorded in his garage five years ago as a tribute to his mother's native land.

The collection's simplicity belies what may be both Blades's most authentic and most political record. "Cantares" picks up where "Maestra Vida" left off in that the characters -- the prostitute, the stutterer, the boys on the block -- all return, familiar fixtures in Blades's musical landscape. And he treats them with the usual loving amusement, the same light humor.

But the magic here is the music: bright shiny son, with its jangly guitars, its breezy tropical tempo, heart-stopping clave and lyrics that tear at your soul, like in "País Portátil": "A portable country's for sale . . . it's a place without memory. " Certainly not a happy song, but though almost every tune is infused with melancholia, lyrically and/or musically, the album's overall tone actually tips the other way. And here's the kicker: "Cantares del Subdesarrollo" is probably Blades's most danceable record in ages, but the kind of dancing that's best experienced cheek to cheek, with a little shuffle and a wink.

-- Achy Obejas

Recommended tracks

"País Portátil," "Símbolo," "Olaya"

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