Rubén Blades performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 15, 2012. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
Halfway through the mesmerizing set of Afro-Caribbean classics that singer-songwriter Rubén Blades presented Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl, he introduced the beloved 1984 hit "Decisiones," noting that it had been banned in his native Panama at the time of its release.
"The dictators are now gone," Blades said wryly. "But the song remains."
The same could be said about salsa. Its soulful groove dominated much of Latin music from the mid-'60s to the early '90s. In recent years, however, it has all but disappeared from the Latin American zeitgeist — replaced by more visceral and less complex dance formats such as reggaetón, merengue and bachata. But the songs remain, their staggering sonic richness and poetic imagery intact.
At 64, Blades is returning on grand scale to Afro-Caribbean music. After a stint as Panama's minister of tourism, he released "Cantares del Subdesarrollo" (2009), an album of pared acoustic songs influenced by Cuban son.
Anybody who felt somewhat underwhelmed by the record's minimalistic scope should have listened to Blades' interpretation of its opening track, "Las Calles," on Wednesday. Backed by the singer's new 12-piece orchestra, the tune brimmed with raucous Afro-Cuban energy — a revelation, as timeless and inspired as anything Blades has done before.
Led by Panamanian bassist Roberto Antonio Delgado, the new band is at the core of Blades' artistic resurrection — an eloquent reminder that he continues to be the Latin equivalent of a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen.
Boosted by the presence of three trombones, two trumpets and two keyboard players, the group evokes the retro feel of a jazzy big band, generating layer after layer of majestic textures. It handles Blades' extensive catalog effortlessly, like a well-oiled machine.
Not surprisingly, the new set list revives ambitious nuggets from Blades' past. A Brazilian-flavored "La Palabra Adiós," which he originally recorded with New York supergroup Fania All Stars, sounded particularly uplifting. The signature eight-minute singalong "Pedro Navaja" was all salsa fever and Latin pathos, a nihilistic narrative whose gleeful dark humor refuses to go out of style.
Since the late '90s, Blades had toured with Costa Rican fusion combo Editus, then revived his '80s ensemble Seis del Solar. The results were always positive, but he never sounded as comfortable as he does with his current band. His voice is still in top shape, wonderfully expressive, having fully assimilated the lessons in swing he learned from the Afro-Caribbean crooners who influenced his youth: Cheo Feliciano and Ismael Rivera. Blades' latest album, in fact, the excellent "Eba Say Ajá," was recorded in collaboration with Feliciano himself.
Opening act Eddie Palmieri turned 75 last year, but he remains as iconoclastic as he was in the '60s, when he burst into the New York club scene with tropical combo La Perfecta, his keyboard oozing mountains of dissonance and psychedelia.
Backed by a seasoned 11-piece band including key players from the contemporary salsa scene such as trombonist Jimmy Bosch and singer Hermán Olivera, the cigar-smoking Palmieri presented a painfully brief set celebrating the earlier years of his decades-long career. The hyper-kinetic "La Malanga," the sinuous "Lindo Yambú" and the 1965 anthem "Azúcar" illustrated the man's mathematically designed combination of jazz harmonies with Afro-Cuban dynamics.
When the band comes to a standstill and he launches into one of his legendary solos, Palmieri becomes a musical mystic on the path to enlightenment. He closes his eyes and changes the tempo, twisting and bending it, slowing down or speeding it up. Playing against his own orchestra, witnessing the collision with glee, as if he were looking to blur the boundaries of reality — a musical coup d'etat. Then, just as unexpectedly, he settles into a tasty groove, nice and easy, the kind of conservative tumbao you would find on a Cuban dance floor in the '50s.
This extreme contrast between crowd-pleasing choruses and radical experimentation has given Palmieri a unique place of honor in salsa: reckless hit maker and misunderstood genius, all at the same time. The audience at the Bowl got the message, running to the aisles for a quick dance before the security guards sent them back to their seats.
A close relative of rock 'n' roll in spirit and sensibility, salsa is arguably the most fascinating genre in all of Latin music: mercurial, glamorous, seeped in jazz and Caribbean roots, a study in contradictions. As demonstrated Wednesday, both Palmieri and Blades are keeping its spirit alive, along with other survivors from the golden era — Oscar D'León, La Sonora Ponceña, El Gran Combo and the more contemporary Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
Perhaps it's time for a new generation of salseros to learn from the masters and carry on the torch, while there's still time. The songs remain.