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Ruben Blades: Live at NJPAC

Report on performance by noted Panamanian singer/songwriter at NewJersey Performing Arts Center on Friday November 4th, 2011

Panamanian singer Ruben Blades is a beautiful artist who brings soul and incredible musicality to the forefront when on stage. His show of last week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, “The Musical Chronicles of Ruben Blades,” was a series of very well performed songs mixed with social and political comments. “Today is our flag day,” declared Blades. Indeed, the show was on Friday November 4, the day following Panama’s Independence Day. The show was a story told through “mini stories,” namely the songs (some were his compositions, others important salsa songs) he interpreted, and mini “spoken” stories he told his audience about Panama, the United States, and his own life. Blades brings on stage with him parts of the Panamanian history and a tasteful salsa flavor.

The audience, for the most part Hispanic, was ready for Blades. The band (a keyboardist, a bass player, a conga player who also sang, a trombone player, another trombone player-bass trombone, a drummer who also played various percussions, a trumpet player who also played a sort of conga, a percussionist and another keyboardist) was extremely punctual. The show was scheduled to start at 8pm and finish at 10pm, and this is pretty much what happened.

When Blades arrived on stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation. But the New Jersey Performing Arts center was not full-yet Blades’ music was soulful, intelligent and humorous. Some people even started dancing.

During the entire show, Blades switched between Spanish and English when telling anecdotes about his life or upon making various political comments. The 3rd song of the show was “Ojos,” and the fourth was “Decisiones.” “Many of the people here come from working class families,” Blades said. And later on during the evening, he explained: “My mother never finished elementary school; my father worked too. They worked all their life.” After studying at the free university of Panama, Blades had to leave his country because of the dictatorship. The only reason why he was able to study in Panama was because the university was free. Blades’ story is certainly not uncommon, and his sharing it with his audience created an even stronger bond between him and his aficionados. “I spent five years in Panama working for the government [and] I missed singing,” he added. And later on he asked his audience to “imagine the next presidential election with two black candidates, one Latino and two women!”

Blades just did an album with Hector Lavoe (and Willie Colon): “Finally!” he exclaimed. Blades’ first album was in 1969. So for this show, he “didn’t know what to play because [his] first album was [recorded so many years ago].” Yet the songs and their sequence were intelligently chosen. Blades sang “Ligia Elena.” And he sang “Amor y control,” which he wrote “when [he] visited [his sick mother] at the hospital.”After that song, Blades explained: “What we’re going to play is an example of what salsa is: jazz with New York and Puerto Rico.” This song, “Juan Pachanga,” was “recorded with the wonderful Puerto Rican musician Louie Ramirez,” Blades announced. And one of the two keyboardists on stage played an outstanding introduction to the song.

Then Blades sang “Buscando Guayaba,” a “song [he] wrote a long time ago.” “I don’t know why it became popular.” He added. Apparently, children really like this song. Afterwards came “La Maleta,” a “song about immigration.” That very song is about immigrants going back to the homeland and having it easier and enjoying it there instead of here. Blades introduced the song by explaining that it illustrates the republicans’ dream.

Afterwards, Blades decided to sing a song “for the people who [were] here listening to [him] singing in Spanish-a sad song from a maestro”-a bolero-“Summer Wind” (made famous by the 1966 Sinatra recording). “First, thanks for coming here; second, it’s still time for a second language!” Blades joked. He did sound a little like Sinatra, and allowed the audience to discover another facet of his art, which was very pleasant and added to his multitalented personality (also characterized by a real frankness and humility). Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that Blades chose Sinatra since Sinatra was born in Hoboken and we were in Newark after all.

Blades also sang a song which was recorded with Cirque du Soleil and he interpreted “Todos Vuelven,” a song written by Peruvian composer and writer Cesar Miro. Todos Vuelven Live is the name of his latest CD. And as Panamanian flute player Melvin Lam Zanetti explained to me after the show, Ruben Blades is currently recording a new album in Panama with the Roberto Delgado Orquestra.

Once the show was over, the audience asked for an encore, but Blades did not give in, which was a little unfortunate. On the other hand, his performance as it was already proved to be a moving and colorful journey, with a most human dimension-a real treat and the two hours during which he shared his lights with us felt like ten short minutes.

Originally Published