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Ending his tour of political duty

Ruben Blades returns to music after a trying mission in Panama.

March 04, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Panama City — A nosy reporter can't avoid being drawn to the bulletin board hanging in the sparsely decorated office of Ruben Blades, the salsa star-turned-tourism czar for his native Panama. It's a humbling "wall of shame," with critical cartoons and newspaper clips blasting Blades for his performance in public office after being appointed to the Cabinet-level post in 2004.

Blades waves off an aide who considers diverting the reporter's attention.

"No, let him look at it," says the acclaimed singer and actor. "Let him see what this thing is all about."

One 2005 headline reads: "Successful artist; unpopular minister."

Another blares: "Blades is vulgar and rude, asserts his ex-press director."

And in a biting cartoon, Blades is skewered with his own lyrics for being out of the office too often, a common critique early in his term. It shows the tourism minister's empty chair and quotes from one of his most impassioned, political songs, "Desapariciones," about people who disappeared under Argentina's military rule.

The caption quotes the chorus, asking: "¿Y donde estan los desaparecidos?" (And where are the disappeared ones?).

Politics aside, Blades' fans may be asking the same question.

One of the 10 most important songwriters of the last half century in Latin pop music, Blades virtually vanished from the entertainment scene after joining the Cabinet of Panamanian President Martin Torrijos. Worried that critics would accuse a musician of not taking the job seriously, Blades put away his maracas and donned the business suits he hates wearing.

But that self-imposed artistic hiatus may be coming to a close.

El Ministro, as he is addressed here, performed in public last month for the first time since his appointment, taking the stage for Panama's reenergized carnival celebration, which featured an international summit of salsa groups he helped organize. Flexing his international influence, Blades convened the top bands in the business -- Los Van Van from Cuba, Grupo Niche from Colombia, El Gran Combo from Puerto Rico -- for the weeklong street festival. It was a tropical Woodstock that eclipsed even the mega-concerts of salsa's heyday in the 1970s.

The salsa summit coincides with Blades' goal of boosting the cultural profile of this booming Central American nation. But his recent performance, with his regular backup group Editus from Costa Rica, sends a clear message to music fans.

Blades is back.

Unlike many of his salsa peers who have been stuck on the oldies circuit, Blades has remained relevant by pushing the boundaries of his Afro-Caribbean craft. His last studio album, 2003's "Mundo," was so eclectic that it won a Grammy not in a Latin category, but for world music.

Still, even Blades may find it tricky to adapt to a market that's radically different from when he started in the mid-'70s.

Does he worry about attempting a comeback at a time when salsa is suffering a severe commercial slump?

"The era of salsa in New York and Puerto Rico came at a very special time and it cannot be reproduced," he says. "But the music hasn't died. The money right now may be in reggaeton, but salsa will always have a future. It's still there, underground, waiting for the right moment to reemerge."

Bursting with ideas

LAST summer at his office in Panama City, Blades had been steeped in the business of steering his country's $1.2-billion tourism industry -- negotiations, contracts, new legislation and his long-term plan to 2020. But when he stopped in Los Angeles last month on the eve of Panama's carnival, he was bubbling with creative juices and artistic plans -- several new albums, film offers and book ideas.

Much had changed in his life in the intervening months. He got married, quit smoking, lost some weight and some more hair. He wasn't prepared to say when he might leave his government job. But Blades talked like an artist who was running out of time, not ideas.

More than once, he brought up his age without being asked -- he turns 59 in July. He talked about settling his will and leaving his papers for posterity.

But when he played a sample of his new music in his home office, he sang along and danced like he couldn't wait to get back onstage. Titled "Cantares del Subdesarrollo" (Ballads of Underdevelopment), the new work is all Blades, literally. He recorded it in his garage studio and played every instrument but bass. The sound is traditional Cuban son, earthy, acoustic and melodic. The lyrics are smart, touching and urgent, with titles like "Pais Portatil" (Portable Country) and "Segunda Mitad del Noveno" (Bottom of the Ninth).

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