The Panamanian icon's fresh take on Salsa music is as refreshing as it is evocative in making us consider the realities of the so-called American Dream
President Trump’s victorious 2016 election campaign brought to the surface a swathe of underlying anti-Latino racism and xenophobia. Trump infamously used vitriolic rhetoric to stir up hate against the Latin American community, even at one point claiming that Mexicans “are not our friends, believe me. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. As a consequence of ignorance and hatred towards Latinos by some Americans, Latino immigrants to the United States have faced increasing discrimination in the last few years. Yet, thousands of Latin Americans still risk their life every year in search of the so-called American Dream.
“Blades seems to accidentally stumble on the idea that once you search for the American Dream, driven by its materialistic society which values status and achievement arguably higher than anything else, it changes the perception of you from those you once turned your back on at home”
There are not many people whose life and work simultaneously reflect the story of attaining the American Dream as well as that of Rúben Blades. Although Blades’ album Buscando America is the centrepiece in understanding the peaks and troughs of the American Dream it is important to paint a picture of Blades’ life both before and after the album was released. The Panamanian superstar is synonymous around the world with Salsa music. Salsa is a genre which I have always viewed as a quick and easy remedy for sadness. It is hard for me to listen to it without feeling an uncontrollable urge to move my body and dance; during the recent quarantine I have, rather embarrassingly, caught myself in the mirror dancing to Salsa more than just a handful of times. At first glance into Blades’ oeuvre, one might be drawn towards his most famous album, a collaboration with Willie Colón (who we will be featuring in more detail very shortly on Around the World in 200 Albums), called Siembra. This album, which was released in 1978, contains my favourite Salsa track of all-time, the funky-sounding Plastíco. Siembra is also home to many other great tunes including the world renowned Pedro Navaja and the song María Lionza, which you may even recognise from Major Lazer’s club banger Watch Out For This (Bumaye) in which the iconic Dancehall trio sample Blades’ work.
Nevertheless, Siembra, is very traditional Salsa in its style as it pertains to that ever-present ‘vamos a bailar’ vibe that a lot of the genre has. Whilst the album lyrically is not a social commentary about seeking a better life in the USA, in terms of Blades’ career it represents a significant step in his journey towards reaching the American Dream. This is because after having joined his parents who were exiled in Miami from Panama, after juggling his efforts between his band Los Salvajes del Ritmo and his Law degree in his native country, Blades decided to try his luck and make it in New York. Half a century later this is decision is one which many Latinos feel almost forced to take. Whilst for Blades, it was because he didn’t want to be a lawyer in a dictatorship; many Latinos similarly feel like their best bet of escaping poverty, crime and corruption is to try and forge a similar path to, rather ironically, avoid exploitation by the US government and the undesirable effects that US intervention has in their homelands.
Like most immigrants in search of the American Dream, Blades had to demonstrate a real commitment to work hard when he arrived to The Big Apple. It seems that aside from talent and dedication, luck is a key ingredient to be able to ‘make it’ in the United States for most immigrants in pursuit of triumph in any industry. This requirement to have good luck is perhaps due to the many barriers and hurdles immigrants have to cross once they arrive. Blades was no different, and had the good fortune and patience to effectively follow the recipe for success in the USA. He got his big break working in the mail room at Fania Records where he was able to rub shoulders with the right people. However, as his album Siembra shows, at this point in time, Blades was firmly sticking to his Latin roots, perhaps a demonstration that even with focus, flair and good fortune he had not fully assimilated into US culture.
This, however, was all set to change. Blades had clearly been sold a version of the American Dream through music and culture from a young age. In a 2001 docu-series, featuring the most famous Panamanian people and artists on the planet, that I saw on YouTube; Blades himself said "our fashion came from the United States. The first time I heard Elvis Presley, I had absolutely no idea what he was saying but I knew deep within what he was saying to me, with a voice and with music I had never heard, so I started with rock music." You just need to take a look at his Elvis Presley-hairstyle that he used to don in his younger years to get a sense that Blades was inspired by the idea of creating a fusion between music exported to Panama in his youth from the USA and traditional Latin music. That said, Blades was not ready to totally abandon his Latin American roots, although, in 1984 moved away from collaborating with Willie Colón and instead released the album Buscando America which was revolutionary in its day, albeit still loosely a Salsa album, it incorporated many other musical genres that were popular in the USA at the time.
Rather controversially, the album starts with a doo-wop, reminiscent of the immensely popular Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, on the opening track Decisiones. This album is full of alternative inflections from other genres such as my favourite track on the album, Caminos Verdes, which can almost be categorised as soft-rock, to the reggae-stylings of Desapariciones. What is perhaps most notable is the instrumentation choices. Up until that point, popular Salsa music had been characterised by its distinctive horn section, in which brass instruments such as trombones and trumpets were often the trademark of any Salsa band playing in the Cuban ‘conjunto’ style. However, this album sees a completely different musical focus. Instead, Blades teamed up with the backing-band Seis del Solar in which percussionist Ricardo Marrero introduced the atypical sound of the vibraphone to the Salsa album which is particularly audible in the songs Todos Vuelven and El Padre Antonio - Y el Monaguillo Andres.
Having been teaching myself Spanish the last few years, after a couple of listens I began to realise that lyrically the album is open to an array of interpretations. One way I looked at it was that it was an album designed to try to find the soul of The Americas as a whole; as at the time there was much in-fighting and instability, as many countries were democratising after have overthrown many of the region’s military regimes in the early 1980s. This is perhaps a more likely breakdown of the album as Latinos do not just refer to the United States when speaking of ‘America’ nor do they just refer to US nationals when they mention ‘Americanos’. However, this ambiguity of the word 'America' is perhaps part of the genius of Blades as he enables, in part, my alternative, and arguably more interesting analysis, of the album. Instead of this more logical explanation, I am choosing to follow the slightly more tenuous line of thought that the title-track, Buscando America, as well as the aforementioned Caminos Verdes and Todos Vuelven, are immensely relevant to my interpretation of the album as a comment on the American Dream.
In 1964, Panamanian riots along the Canal Zone were sparked by American students’ removal of the Panama flag from near the canal. This was Blades decision first political awakening perhaps leaving him to question the brutality of the United States. A few years before the bloody riots Rita Moreno famously sang I Want To Live In America in the hit film West Side Story. Her lyrics brought with it a naïve optimism to the idea that Latinos like Blades had to pursue when deciding to emigrate to the United States. Although West Side Story is critical of the US in some respects, Moreno singing ‘everything free in America’, ‘skyscrapers bloom in America’ and ‘life can be bright in America’ shares a similar kind of anticipation to Blades’ track Caminos Verdes which repeats its only lyrics, ‘Voy llegando a la frontera, Pa' salvarme en Venezuela’ (I am going to arrive at the border, in order to save myself in Venezuela), over and over again with an increasing hopefulness in Blades’ vocals as the song goes on. To me, this indicates that Blades is saying that he made a mistake taking himself to the United States to start a fresh life, drawn in by the optimism and having ignored warning signs within his subconscious and should instead have gone to the exemplar country economically, politically and socially in Latin America at the time, albeit a distant memory from what Venezuela looks like today under Nicolás Maduro, as it was too tough to fully integrate into the non-Hispanic society of the United States at the time and a country with a similar Latin soul like Venezuela might have been preferable.
Perhaps more telling are the opening lyrics to the title-track in which Blades sings:
Te estoy buscando América Y temo no encontrarte, Tus huellas se han perdido entre la oscuridad
(I am searching for America
I fear that I won’t find you
Your footprints have been lost in the dark)
To me, this indicates that Blades, despite having seemingly lived the American Dream by acquiring professional success in his short-time there, still felt unfulfilled. Here, he is perhaps questioning the existence of the American Dream or that he no longer knows what it is. This is perhaps a sentiment that is true to this very day, as immigrants to the United States who go convinced they will find a better life can instead find themselves hugely disappointed. This is especially true when the tremendous upheaval of leaving their lives behind is taken into account. An appropriate recent example of this being the case is the Trump administration’s devastating family separation policy, which saw numerous Latinos disillusioned by the harsh treatment of immigrants looking to manifest the American Dream.
To understand the poignancy and the prophecy of Buscando America, we may have to look at the rest of Blades’ life after he released the album. Blades persevered in his search for the American Dream first through higher education, as in 1985 he graduated with a Masters from Harvard Law School. Three years later he then released his first English-language album which featured the likes of Lou Reed and Elvis Costello, and he then further tried to assimilate into the US entertainment industry by having remarkable success in Hollywood as a movie star. However despite all of this, it seems that you can take the man out of Panama, you cannot take Panama out of the man. When George W. Bush’s administration bombed Panama he went through a political reawakening, returned to Panama and unsuccessfully ran for the Presidency in 1994. Therefore, it is arguable that a decade after its release is when the song Todos Vuelven bared most relevance for Blades.
Todos vuelven a la tierra en que nacieron
Al embrujo incomparable de su sol
Todos vuelven al rincón de donde salieron
Donde acaso floreció más de un amor
Bajo el árbol solitario del pasado
Cuántas veces nos ponemos a soñar todos vuelven
Por la ruta del recuerdo
Pero el tiempo del amor no vuelve más
(They all go back to the land where they were born
To the unique charm of its sun
They all go back to the corner where they came from
Where perhaps more than one love blossomed
Under the lonely tree of the past
How many times do we dream they all return
By the route which I remember
But the time of love never returns)
Whilst at the time of its release Blades had no idea that the love he felt for his homeland would not be fully reciprocated by its electorate. Nevertheless, he seems to accidentally stumble on the idea that once you search for the American Dream, driven by its materialistic society which values status and achievement arguably higher than anything else, it changes the perception of you from those you once turned your back on at home. These lyrics also indicate to me that Blades had pondered returning many times but felt too committed to his decision to follow the perhaps non-existent American Dream.
Nevertheless, in some ways it seems that Rúben Blades is a real success story of the American Dream, having a fruitful and eclectic career in the United States. Despite having lost the Presidential Election he is still seen as Panama's greatest export and is heralded as a national hero. Yet, in other ways he seems to have lost what really matters to him - a sense of belonging and a connection to his Latin heritage. Maybe the start of that process was his departure from traditional Salsa to write the album Buscando America? Whilst I believe this album is a fascinating one it steers away from the typical fun-loving Salsa that just a few years before was oozing out of the core of Blades’ soul. To me the album poses the ultimate question – does the American Dream exist? Is it worth pursuing? In spite of discrimination and hardships, for many Latinos the answer is still an emphatic 'sí'. Paradoxically, Blades’ career asserts the idea that under the right circumstances you can go to the United States and have great success in whatever industry you put your mind to, perpetuating the idea that the USA is the Land of Opportunity, although, if you’re a Spanish-speaker you can listen closely to Buscando America and perhaps you’ll reach a similar conclusion that following the American Dream is not all it is cracked up to be.
In conclusion, whilst this might not be the most fun nor enjoyable album of its genre, I do believe Buscando America is an accomplished album and Blades certainly does something that I did not think was possible. He created a Salsa album with depth, meaning and musical ingenuity. For that very reason, Blades must go down in history as having achieved something very special. Which leads me to ask the inevitable question: is that special achievement the American Dream?