Rubén Blades
The musical vanguard of fin-de-siècle

by Jorge Chino
translation by Claudia S. Meléndez


After more than nine years of traversing cinematic and political scenes, Rubén Blades has returned to the musical world with his vision transformed. It is at once hardened and tender, a gaze that can only come from maturity.

In 1994 Blades lost the presidential election in Panama, but his fans have reclaimed music’s prodigal and prodigious son, the avant-garde sonero who created such hits as Buscando América and Pedro Navaja. The charismatic Blades returns with a serious musical treat for the soul: “Tiempos.”

“What I’m looking for now is music with a continental American sound. What I’m looking for is the philosopher’s stone, a unique sound. I want Latino music that represents who we are,” Blades said at a packed San Francisco concert, one of many presentations during his recent tour.

“Tiempos” is a record that resembles an hourglass that little by little fills your soul with grains of sorrow, joy, sweeping rhythms and a serene view of the world. “Tiempos” is a work of maturity and beauty, a seminal work of the nineties.

“Tiempos” is more experimental than earlier Blades albums. Suddenly, you hear Hipocresía, with a galloping and effervescent rhythm; then Vida, a guaracha; later Creencia, a montuno; and then Tiempos, a guaguancó. These songs are in and of themselves a mix of many genres, a corner of classic music, jazz and rock.

Blades is accompanied by the talented Costa Rican group Editus. “Editus is an excellent ensemble,” said Blades during a concert in San Francisco. The musicians travel easily between different rhythms and genres, musicians that play violin and soprano sax just as well as bombo leguero and Peruvian cajón.

“Tiempos” is a Trojan horse at a galloping pace that hides in its entrails infinite passions, frustrations, love affairs that refuse to die. A horse that gallops through life dreaming of a different world.

Ruben Blades still is the Latin American patriot with a strong political, social, and artistic commitment. But in Hipocresía, the Panamanian artist shows some disillusionment, maybe as a result of his experience as presidential candidate or his recent divorce. “There are no lefts or rights, only excuses and pretexts; a mistreated rhethoric for a planet of the ambidextrous,” his song says.

Compared with Sicarios, Pedro Navaja was a mean but simple character, a figure that becomes lost behind fogged up windows of urban life. The protagonist in Sicarios is a hitman of incredible insensitivity, a man on a motorcycle hired by drug traffickers to pull off a cold-blooded killing.

“Tiempos” is a recording of fin-de-siecle, one that closes an epoch. At the same time, Tiempos opens the door to the next century and escapes conventionalisms. “It prepares us for what’s to come, for the future,” Blades said to his happy audience.

“Tiempos” is a creation that attempts to incorporate the work of musicians such as Astor Piazzola, a creation holding on to art itself and fighting against the forces of commercialization. “Tiempos” is not a commercial work,” Blades writes in the CD’s sleeve. “I have always wanted to produce good music, period. I think it would be suicidal to limit my creative potential by condemning it to schemes that, due to their repetitive nature, end up sinking the creator in mediocrity and irrelevance.”

“Tiempos” is a Trojan horse melancholically traversing the Latin American music world while the skies bleed with battles of hitmen, leftists and rightists confusions, and indigenous struggles.

In the lyrics one notices the personal, political, and emotional ambivalences of this musician who invested more than two years in this work. In this recording, Rubén Blades appears to be resigned to the blows life has dealt him in this century that is nearly over but has yet to leave us all together.

© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine