When Rubén Blades announced recently that he would no longer perform salsa music on tour after 2016, and that he planned to return to politics in his native Panama (where he served previously as Minister of Tourism), it certainly appeared to some that the 65-year-old singer-songwriter was winding down his musical career. A clarification—that he would still perform salsa in his home country and continue to record what he is best known for—followed, but instead of a salsa collection, Blades has delivered the self-explanatory Tangos. It’s unlike anything he’s attempted before.
For the project Blades teamed with Carlos Franzetti, the Argentinean composer-arranger with whom he collaborated on several projects in the ’70s and ’80s. The pair took 11 of Blades’ salsa compositions and got to work reimagining them as tangos, chiefly ballads with a couple of midtempo pieces to pick up the pace at strategic spots. Utilizing the Leopoldo Federico Orchestra and the Prague Symphony Orchestra, at sessions held in Buenos Aires and New Jersey (the latter featuring fewer players), the team built the recording around the romanticism inherent in the material and the soulful side of Blades’ vocal style.
The transformation of Blades’ compositions is accomplished seamlessly. “Pablo Pueblo,” a signature Blades salsa dating from early in his career, is typical. As a quartet of bandoneons and a bevy of strings swirl around him, Blades emotes melodramatically but short of histrionically. The orchestration and the piano of Nicolas Ledesma complement Blades’ demonstrative rendering of the workingman’s anthem, which retains its poignancy even in this wholly unfamiliar setting. Among the less ornamented tracks, “Sebastian” is particularly sweet, especially the juxtaposition of the playful violin- and bandoneon-powered rhythm of its first half against the jarring entrance of a wash of strings midway through. Tangos is full of surprises like that, but none as great as what Blades and Franzetti have accomplished overall.