Some critics have charged that Rube'n Blades is diluting the purity of salsa music in an attempt to reach Anglo audiences. But at the end of his two-hour concert at the Capital Hilton Wednesday night, it was clear that the Panamanian-born salsa star, now a New Yorker, is not going to compromise his art but rather is going to attract new audiences to his point of view.
Fronting a powerful all-star band, Blades showed a desire to expand and enliven the genre from within, replacing the standard salsa horn section with a twin-keyboard attack while retaining the multipercussionist blanket of polyrhythms. But there were no concessions or accommodations musically, and certainly none politically. Blades is a writer of conscience, and his songs swirl with harsh appraisals that show both a journalist's eye for detail and a crusader's urge for change. Passion and intelligence are in harmony here, and the results are scintillating.
At times the concert took on the air of a political rally -- the stage crowded, the electorate pressing in, swaying under the insistent, roiling rhythms. There was also a palpable tension and at one point even a heated on-stage debate with a fan who felt Blades' observations on the status of minority groups were too harsh. As he would do in his songs throughout the night, Blades, who is also a lawyer, made compelling connections between Hispanics and blacks, between Latin America and South Africa and the United States, exposing the distance between dream and reality before resting his case.
While drawing mostly from his two most recent albums, "Buscando America (Searching for America)" and "Escenas (Scenes)," Blades also paid tribute to his apprenticeship with the legendary Willie Colon by performing two hits from that period, "Tiburon" and "Pedro Navaja."
But from the pulsing instrumental opener, "Pana Fuerte (Strong Friendship)," Blades let it be known that he was going to take salsa to a different place musically, as he already has lyrically. It's as if he has layered substance onto the considerable style that has always made salsa such irresistible dance music.
Both "Cuentas del Alma (Heart Dues)" and "Silencios" explored in agonizing detail that empty space where the end of love leaves silence "that is another way of dying." "Decisiones" catalogued the hard choices that people must make every day, but did it over cascading rhythms and an exuberant chorus.
The spare, somber "Tierra Dura (Hard Land)" addressed the tragedy of African famine, while "La Cancion del Final del Mundo (The Song of the End of the World)" chided the listener for sudden panic after years of social and political apathy. "Muevete (Move On)" made basic the connections between the Caribbean, South, Central and North Americas, and Africa, saluting "those who defend freedom and use truth as a shield" and urging solidarity and activism.
The music was put across with unrelenting power by Seis del Solar, headed by powerhouse drummer Robert Ameen and conga whiz Bobby Allende, and anchored by pianist Oscar Hernandez and Ricardo Marrero (synthesizers and timbals). The horn section may be gone from Blades' setup, but the swirl of sound produced by Hernandez and Marrero suggested not only that brassy underpinning, but also the sting of electric guitar and the cushion of synth washes.
Blades isn't taking liberties, he's taking chances, blending the driving tightness of Willie Colon's music and the lyrical detail and compassionate imagination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing with a cliche'-free approach that looks to the end of the '80s, not the beginning. This is not compromise, it is an inviting expansion. If there's any crossover dream in Rube'n Blades' future, you suspect a lot of people are going to be waking up on his side of the bridge.