How does the influence of music from around the globe enhance Ruben Blades' album Mundo?
Perhaps it is no accident that salsa has become one of the world's most favorite musical genres. Salsa finds its roots not in one country. Rather, it represents a collision of Cuba and Puerto Rico's musical traditions with New York's jazz orchestras in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pushed on by New York City's legendary Fania All Stars, the new up-tempo hybrid won fans in the United States — and then was exported all over the world.
Among salsa's most influential practitioners is Panamanian lawyer Ruben Blades, who moved to New York to pursue a musical career. Blades first came to prominence playing with salsa legend Willie Colon — and then struck out on his own with a group called Seis de Solar.
His music's popularity was so great that Blades eventually "crossed over" into acting as well. He starred in movies such as "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "Mo' Better Blues."
Despite these successes, Blades never forgot his roots as a lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law School.
Not only were the lyrics of his songs strong pleas for social justice. He even ran for president of Panama in 1994, coming in third place with 20% of the vote.
Blades' latest album, Mundo, is a musical excursion that combines his salsa roots and concerns for justice with a willingness to seek out new influences and sounds.
The album's title ("World," in English) announces Blades' intentions quite clearly. The map of the globe is the only limit to Blades' musical ambitions.
Like any smart strategist, Blades makes sure that he secures his home base before undertaking any globe-trotting. Much of Mundo is filled with references to the sea and to voyages, with the strong but familiar salsa rhythms anchoring the music.
On the song "Como Nosotros" ("Like You and Me"), Blades sings that "When I was a kid/ my neighborhood seemed a Continent/ every street a road to adventure."
From that evocative picture of home, however, Blades declares "anchors aweigh." He lets his musical vision take him on a journey to new ports of call — both musically and literally.
The delicate and soulful ballad, "Parao!" ("On My Feet"), takes its inspiration from American author Isabel Fonseca's classic study of Gypsy culture, Bury Me Standing. Listen to the plaintive gypsy violin winds through the gentle rhythms of the song.
Blades travels even further afield from his Central American roots on "Jiri Son Bali" — an adaptation of a traditional song from Mali. It is a syncopated celebration of the mutual influences that Carribean music and African have had on each other.
The song begins as a traditional Mali chant, and then blossoms into a beautiful mingling of Latin music with this African music.
The road that Mundo takes encompasses not only geography, but musical styles as well. Early on in the voyage, Blades explores contemporary American jazz via a strong rendition of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays' composition "First Circle."
He also takes his travels in musical form to Brazil, with a delightful version of Brazilian composer Gilberto Gil's "Consideration" that moves from ballad to gently swaying samba.
Blades also travels to Ireland — via New York — with a delicate and Latin-tinged rendering of the Irish classic "Danny Boy." Blades dedicates his version, which delicately threads Irish instruments into a languid salsa rhythm, to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks and to "the immortal soul of the city of New York."
Blades' Mundo brings to mind another classic experiment in world music — English songwriter Joe Jackson's 1986 classic Big World.
As Blades does on Mundo, Jackson uses strong choruses and a willingness to experiment to create a winning blend of musical styles. Mundo also proves once again the point that Jackson made on the title song of Big World: "It's a big world/ So much to see."
Even a music that is as world-renowned as salsa can pick up some tips from elsewhere. On Mundo, Ruben Blades's willingness to take the listener to new and exotic locales results in a wonderful record that can truly be labeled as "global."