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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rubén Blades & Willie Colón, "Siembra"

Rubén Blades & Willie Colón
Fania (1978)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

As is mentioned in 1001 Albums, salsa doesn't get the credit it deserves for being an American genre. Tom Moon is among those at fault when he categorizes "Siembra" by Rubén Blades and Willie Colón as "World (Latin)." There's no question that salsa is Latin; but what kind of Latin is it? It derives most of its qualities from Cuban roots, but it developed in the United States, among many ethnicities. Fania, the New York City label that released the album, never claimed to be based on any particular ethnic group. Dominican Johnny Pacheco drew from the city's diverse Hispanic populations and made Fania the biggest label in Latin music. Blades is Panamanian, and Colón is Puerto Rican. And that's really the point of "Siembra."

If you've never lived in New York, you cannot comprehend the cultural differences that exist between Latin American ethnicities. It seems the only common denominator is the Spanish language. But during Fania's golden age, most shared a common story. Much like today, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and other Latins came to New York City looking for work and the American Dream, which of course they found to be tough. Blades recognized the similar themes, and wrote it into "Siembra," using images of various Latin American babies as cover art to call for unification. The opening track, "Plástico," might sound more like disco with it's funky bass groove, but Blades ends the song with a role call of Latin American nations, urging them to unite, "like Bolivar dreamed of," (in Spanish, of course).

There's plenty of criticism aimed at American culture ("Plástico" refers to commercialism), but the mood isn't one of revolution. Blades aims to demonstrate the similarity between cultures as a method of uniting the various ethnicities against common problems, which to this day include low wages and poor housing. He melds bits of urban folklore from multiple nations into the mini-epic "Pedro Navaja," a song using the recognizable themes of Bobby Darin's "Mack The Knife" as a starting point. Like Mack, Navaja (which of course translates to "knife") is a criminal, and his tale is punctuated with hard times and the sounds of sirens, reminiscent of New York City. As the track ends, the background singers mock the famous "I want to be in America" line from "The West Side Story."

Blades has the voice stereotypically associated with "sexy" Latino singers, but his true talent is taking a genre meant for dancing, and making it equally as good for thinking. Even when he doesn't make outright calls for unity (such as in the title track), the range of cultures that are drawn from during the album demonstrates the mixing pot he aimed to create. "Buscando Guayaba" is strongly Puerto Rican, while "María Lionza" references Venezuelan lore.

Sadly, despite the the work done by Blades and Colón (no disrespect meant; Colón is always regarded as the figurehead trombone-player within Fania), understanding and unity have not been reached in New York City. My girlfriend talks about how Mexican students are bullied by Puerto Ricans at her elementary school, and gang violence continues. I think they all need to listen to "Siembra" again, and figure things out.

INTERESTING FACT: A Mexican movie company made a film titled "Pedro Navaja" in 1984, without consulting Blades. It is ambiguous at the end of the song whether the character is killed or not, and the movie presumes that he is. Blades, probably just to be a jerk, recorded "Sorpresas" ("Surprises") after the movie was released, a song that indicates Navaja is alive and well.

Pedro Navaja by Rubén Blades on Grooveshark

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