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March 17, 1988 - Image 62

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-03-17

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'If you can express yourself in other languages, why not do it? Singer-actor Blades
Ruben Blaes
Bumilding Bridges
A new world record from an international pop star

"Nothing But the Truth" is a strong musi-
cal bridge. It should connect him to his
biggest audience yet.
Blades was already a well-established
salsa star when he left the Latin label
Fania to sign with Elektra in 1984. In 1984
and 1985 he released two albums, "Bus-
cando America" and "Escenas." A Span-
ish-speaking musician on a big Anglo label,
he was an apparent anomaly: just what
kind of music was this? Salsa? Pop? Rock?
Island music? Was it political? Was it ro-
mantic? The answer was, yes. The melodies
blended salsa, rock and roll, doo-wop, West
Indian music-all the styles Blades had
heard growing up in Panama and later
living in the States; the lyrics were tough,
politically pointed, richly detailed. It
wasn't any kind of music except, well, his
own-intelligent pop with an Afro-Cuban
accent and a global perspective. "The
pleasure that I feel any time I step on a
stereotype," Blades says, "is like the pleas-
ure of kicking in a goal, or hitting a home
run, or watching a kid smile. I feel so good
about that."
Use your brain: Now, in English, there's
"Nothing But the Truth," a magnifident
record. (Recording in Spanish, Blades was
always careful to include English transla-
tions. "Nothing But the Truth" carries a
Spanish lyric sheet-"to keep that commu-
nication open," Blades says.) Anglo ears
that may have been unused to Spanish lyr-
ics can hear more easily now that Blades is
a superb singer-direct, unaffected, with a
rhythmic lilt that harks back to the calypso
he heard as a kid. "I Can't Say" and "Cha-
meleons" are cool and jazzy, although in
the latter case the tight harmonies and
smooth instrumentation belie the anger of
the lyrics-about "so-called leaders who
are chameleons," Blades says, "who don't
have a point of view or a personality." What
color are you wearing today? the chorus
taunts and then throws down a challenge to
the listener: Use your brain orsomeone will
use it for you ... The sly a cappella "Ollie's
Doo Wop" paints Oliver North as a street-
corner smoothie whispering geopolitical
jive in the president's ear.
The record's most moving song is "The
Letter," written as a letter to a friend who
is dying of AIDS: I heard the word on the
street, from people we never liked. They told
me that you were sick, and they think you're
going to die. The song's great emotional
clout lies in its refusal to pander. It is
infinitely compassionate and perfectly
cleareyed. In an extraordinarily moving
couplet, the narrator even bawls out his
dying friend: Wished you would have told
me, instead of finding out from strangers; I
never was ashamed to be your pal. It's a
powerfully understated argument for love
in the face of fear. "We cannot become
AIDS's living victims," Blades says.
"That's what happens when you accuse
APRIL 1988


There is a fear that haunts Ruben
Blades, and it is the fear of never
being able to go back where you
come from. Musician, actor, writ-
er, Harvard-trained lawyer, may-
be the future president of his native Pana-
ma, Blades is a man for whom intellection
is life itself, and he can't seem to leave this
idea alone. So when he cowrote and starred
in a movie several years ago, it turned out
to be "Crossover Dreams"-the story of a
salsa singer who is nearly destroyed by his
pursuit of mainstream success. And when
he releases "Nothing But the Truth" (Elek-
tra) this month, the first song on Side 1 will
be "The Hit (El 'Contrato')"-a barrio noir
fable about street criminal Sweet Tyrone,
murdered in a bar for betraying his friends.
Don't double-cross the ones you love ... the
ones you need, Blades sings in English. Way

off in the background, barely audible, a
voice sings a ghostly Spanish counterpoint.
It's an eerie moment, and charged with
meaning. "Nothing But the Truth" is the
first English-language record for Blades,
39, an international star in Latin music,
and at this key moment in his career he
seems particularly vulnerable to charges of
a sellout. He's prepared for that. "There's
always some suspicion that a move like this
implies an abandonment of the Latin
roots," he says. "Just like when I went to
Harvard, a lot of people thought I'd never
again record in Spanish and that I'd end up
working on Wall Street or doing God knows
what. But if you can express yourself in
other languages, why not do it? You don't
have to run away from your base." Put
another way: Blades's career has been
about building bridges, not burning them.


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