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Willie Colon and Ruben Baldes profile

Profile: Willie Colon & Ruben Blades -- The Dream Time

by Lisa Vincent

If I had my way these two guys would collaborate on an album every couple of years, but, sadly, they haven't done so in about a decade. Both are tremendous talents in their own rights, but these combined efforts represent some of their best work during this period. The pairing seems to highlight the strengths of each, while minimizing their weaknesses.

Willie Colón has been one of the most brilliant stylistic innovators of this generation -- ever since recording "Che Che Colé" in 1972, a Ghanaian song to which he added a pan-Caribbean feel. Since then he has incorporated stylistic elements from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Brazil (to name just a few) into a music that was up until then predominantly Cuban in origin. What's more, he makes it work, which is no easy task. Many have tried to graft new rhythms and styles into Salsa, only to have them compete and cancel each other out. Colón nearly always pulls it off. Add this to his inimitable, infectiously grooving trombone playing and you have a great sound. He is also a competent singer, but when collaborating with other singers he generally chooses to take a back seat.

This is a particularly wise choice when dealing with a vocalist of the caliber of Rubén Blades. This man has a voice like a projectile. He seems to fling it at a song as if throwing a dart at a dartboard. When he hits bull's-eye, which is quite often, the effect is one of spontaneous passion and yet total control. In peak form, he can hit a clear high note at 60 MPH from a cold start, or soar and swoop smoothly around it and then pull back suddenly into a hard, powerful, throaty tone, or lapse into an understated almost conversational style punctuated with a shout or a laugh. His talents as a lyricist are unparalleled, whether relating a humorous anecdote or describing the horrors of political oppression. Not all the compositions on the early recordings are his or deal with weighty topics, but there is a definite foreshadowing of things to come.

Blades first came on the scene performing one cut on Colón's 1975 The Good The Bad The Ugly album. "El Cazangero" swings effortlessly from a cool samba-inflected feel to a hot mambo interlude as only Colón can. Blades is singing in slightly lower register than normal but here already displays a lot of authority and his distinctive phrasing and delivery are very much in evidence.

By the 1977 recording Metiendo Mano (billed as Willie Colón presents Rubén Blades) he had found his true voice. Three of these cuts also appear on his solo album Bohemio Y Poeta, but this dual effort is the stronger collection of the two. In fact, this is a remarkably good album. There is not a weak cut on it, with the possible exception of the Frank Dominguez ballad "Me Recordarás," which is marred by a too-sparkly synthesizer, although there is a nice guitar solo by Yomo Toro. Opening with "Pablo Pueblo," describing the common man's daily struggle for existence, and closing with Pueblo, an updated Guaguancó featuring the great Milton Cardona on percussion, and containing references to such issues as the Panama flag riots, it is clear that here is a guy who will never be satisfied singing lines like "Hey, everybody, let's dance!", or "Baby, please don't leave me." Willie and Ruben sing a fine duet on "Segun El Color," giving way to some spine-tingling solos on coro, while the irrepressible "Plantatión Adentro" contains a very catchy voice/trombone interlude. Yet another standout is "Lluvia de Tu Cielo," a sweetly relentless Son Montuno featuring professor Joe Torres on piano, and Blades sings circles around "La Mora." All in all a very impressive piece of work.

1978's Siembra may be best known to some as the source of "Pedro Navaja," Blades classic latin twist on "Mack The Knife." But it's hard to beat "Buscando Guayaba," featuring more great slow-grooving trombone bits and what Rubén calls "un solo de boca", his impression of an instrumental solo — great fun! Unfortunately this album also has a few examples of wretched excess. The title track, an otherwise powerful tune, gets crushed under the weight of a dumpster-load of melodramatic strings, but when it does manage to lose them briefly midway through the song, things really cook. "Plastico" opens with a thump-a-dump disco vamp which hopelessly dates this recording. Perhaps this is meant to be satirical since the song warns against being seduced by superficial plastic values. Let's hope so. "Ojos, Dime" and especially the Cumbia-inflected "María Lionza" are all fine, though.

Canciones del Solar de Los Aburridos (1981) opens with another classic, "Timburón," a scathing commentary on the evils of interventionism, as timely now as ever. This song deserves to be re-released every few years. For me, though, the real winner here is "Te Estan Buscando," in which Ruben and Willie do a great sinister - but - funny voz vieja duet in the changuí style. "Madame Kalalu" and "El Telefonito" are both silly and fun, featuring little dialogue vignettes, complete with character voices, that show up on so many of Blades tunes. (It seems only natural, in retrospect, that he would go on to become an actor as well.) The latter tune is particularly enjoyable, with an irresistible dance beat and all kinds of wonderful vocal carryings-on. "Y Deja" is a lilting Bossa-Nova with a fine jazz violin solo, and the vocal harmonies on De Qué? are reminiscent of Simon and Garfunklel or the Everly Brothers, but with kind of a Bomba beat. Somehow it all works great.

According to the cover art The Last Fight (1982) (the soundtrack to the movie in which Blades portrays a boxer asked to take a "dive." - Editor). This is probably the least interesting of the bunch. One standout is "Cimarron," which after a brief verse wheels into a powerful Cuban flavored coro with some nice percussion work. On "What Happened" Blades sings part of the song in English, which he should avoid at all costs. The rhythm of the language seems to somehow throw off the dynamics of his vocal style with the results sounding clipped and choppy. "Yo Puedo Vivir del Amor" and "Y Tu Abuela" are both quite pleasant and danceable, and "Andanza" is a lovely ballad, but none are exceptionally memorable. Still, if you are as much of a fan as I am, worth having.

I wonder if these two have gone so far on their separate ways as to have given up any thoughts of ever working together again. If so, it's a shame. However, they both seem to be recording for the same label again these days, so maybe there's still hope for the future.

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