"ONE DOESN'T do things when one wants to," says Ruben Blades. "A lot of times, you end up doing them when you can, when you're ready for them. 'Mundo' required something other than just my will -- I've had this album in my head for many years."
Blades, the pioneering Panamanian singer, actor and sometime politician, is talking about an album that aims to connect seemingly disparate cultures through a universal memory of music. On the kaleidoscopic "Mundo" ("World"), strains of Celtic, Middle Eastern, Indian, Brazilian and African music gracefully meld with the Afro-Caribbean traditions Blades has helped modernize to emphasize commonalities over differences.
Which is why Blades is touring with Costa Rican New Age ensemble Editus, the acclaimed Brazilian group Boca Livre and Celtic bagpiper Eric Rigler ("Braveheart," "Titanic"). Along with "Pedro Navaja" and "Plastico," classics that mark Blades as one of the most popular, and occasionally controversial, salsa stars of all time, he's unveiling songs like "Primogenio (Beginnings)," a mesmerizing collage of uilleann pipes, Cuban guaguanco drums and Middle Eastern motifs, and "Jiri Son Bali," which brings mambo undercurrents to a traditional song from Mali. There's also "Bochinches (Gossip)," which mixes Middle Eastern and Indian influences with Spanish flamenco and an intriguing recasting of "Danny Boy," performed in English and Spanish with Irish pipes, Indian percussion and Caribbean rhythms.
"I needed the musicians," is how Blades explains the long delay between idea and actuality.
The basic notion of change and evolution, of course, has been a constant for the 54-year-old Blades, who first made a name for himself in his native Panama in the late '60s pursuing dual career tracks as a lawyer and leader of the salsa band Los Salvajes del Ritmo (Savages of Rhythm). The Blades family immigrated to Miami in 1974 when Ruben's father, a policeman who played bongos (though not on the job), was fired after being accused of being a CIA spy by Manuel Noriega, then head of Panama's military intelligence.
A year later, Blades gravitated to New York, where his first job was in the mailroom at Fania Records. He soon joined Ray Barreto's group as vocalist, and found his first major success with trombonist, bandleader and producer Willie Colon. "Pedro Navaja," about the violent demise of a petty gangster, became the biggest-selling salsa record in history and the album it was on, "Siempra," became salsa's first platinum album -- three times over.
By 1982, Blades had formed his own group, Seis del Solar, breaking from tradition by moving away from the popular dance styles that ruled salsa to explore more socially conscious, politically informed music, a topical focus evidenced on 1983's "Buscando America (Looking for America)."
"We started exploring certain avenues that had not really been defined by salsa at that time," Blades says. He retained the basic salsa influence but reduced the brass element, brought in synthesizers and guitars and began fusing elements of rock and reggae, as well as other Caribbean styles. And though Blades put his career on hold to earn a master's degree in international law at Harvard, music would be his major focus for the next decade.
"My last album with Seis del Solar was 1986's 'Agua de Luna,' interpretations of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez," Blades says. "I was already planning on moving to a more poetic writing, to do a little more experimentation with different forms, but I didn't really have the type of instrumentations that I wanted to have."
There would be other paths -- a bigger band, Son de Solar; an English album produced by Elvis Costello; 1996's "La Rosa de los Vientos." "That's where I started to go into fusion and experimentation full way ahead, but it wasn't until I met Editus that I felt I could really do 'Mundo,' " Blades says. They first collaborated on 1999's "Tiempos," which melded salsa with Brazilian, Spanish and Central American elements.
"These guys are as much anarchists as I am in terms of taste," Blades says. "They have a classical training but they love Afro-Cuban music, rock 'n' roll, world music and whatnot. And they have the understanding, not just the technique and formal education but also the spiritual openness, to make it possible to do an album like 'Tiempos,' which led to this record."
According to Blades, "Mundo" was originally intended to explore the Celtic heritage in northern Spain.
"I didn't know what the tunes were going to be, but I knew what they were going to sound like -- I had already heard the bagpipe with the Cuban drumming in my head," he explains. "I had the album in my soul for a long time and I'm not certain why, because I'm Panamanian. I don't have anything to do with bagpipes -- unless the fact that my grandmother, from my mother's side, is from Galecia, and an Irish musician told me that's where you get the bagpipes. He suggested it was genetic information that I had, which I believe is very much true."
At about the same time, Blades was named one of seven international ambassadors against racism by the United Nations (the only other musician was Ravi Shankar) and as he traveled the world espousing multiculturalism, Blades' reading list seemed to underscore the notion of global communality.
" 'Genome' by Matt Ridley . . . 'Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior' by Jonathan Weiner' . . . 'The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry' by Bryan Sykes' . . . 'Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes' by Steve Olson -- every one is saying, and no one is arguing, that we all come from the same place, and that differences in language or pigmentation are attributed to geographical and migratory consequences.
"But when you come down to it, we are all a part of that source," Blades adds. "And stressing that common origin can put racism in the position where it has no credibility."
Likewise, stressing how naturally "Mundo's" disparate instruments collaborate, "it should be as easy for different cultures to integrate themselves through the notion of solidarity and acceptance of the reality of common origin and common spiritual base. That's what we went for."
Blades traces that notion back to his political experience running for the presidency of Panama in 1994. Though there was some criticism of his living mostly in America since 1974, Blades came in second after forming his own political party, Papa Egoro ("motherland" in the language of Panama's Embara Indians).
"I learned that in order to bring change, you really have to sit down and talk to people," says Blades of the contentious political campaign. "The whole process made of me a better person -- I listen a lot more to positions that I don't agree with and I try to learn something from it. I think that perhaps this record is a reflection on that, saying that we seem to be very different but in reality we can find points where we can be in agreement, or at least agree that we need to address things together, not just my condition, but our condition, as members of society."
And though Blades disbanded Papa Egoro, Panamanian politics remains on the agenda.
"I am going back in 2004 but I'm not going to run for public office, because I don't deserve it," Blades declares. He plans to support Martin Torrijos, son of the military ruler who overthrew President Arnulfo Arias's government in 1968 and runner-up in Panama's 1999 presidential election.
"If he is a candidate, and if he wins, I will take some position in his government, whether it is a cabinet appointment or an autonomous institution," promises Blades. "And then maybe -- if I am good in what I do, if I'm successful in what I do, and if I survive the experiences of public service -- then I could consider in the future, having earned it, a position that has to do with public election."
And it's not as if Blades has an empty calendar. Besides the "Mundo" project, he's planning to resurrect Seis del Solar to celebrate that group's 20th anniversary, as well as putting together a big-band homage to the golden age of Afro-Cuban music.
And for a man who's never made a music video, Blades has had a prolific acting career, with more than two dozen films to his credit. This year alone they include "Empire" (which he also scored); "Imagining Argentina" with Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas; "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," Roberto Rodriguez's sequel to "Desperado," with Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp; and "Assassination Tango," Robert Duvall's first triple-threat effort as actor, director and writer. Blades will also appear in Hayek's directorial debut, "The Maldonado Miracle," and next year, shoots "The King of the Cha Cha Cha," a political comedy tracing the recent history of Central America through the experiences of guerrillas.
"It's my first Spanish movie," Blades says.
RUBEN BLADES -- Appearing Tuesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Ruben Blades, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)