7/03/2010

Colon and Blades: Fania's Dynamic Duo


WILLIE COLON presents RUBEN BLADES

Metiendo Mano!
[Fania-1977]


WILLIE COLON and RUBEN BLADES
Siembra
[Fania-1978]

Here’s a trivia question fans of Latin music the world over all know the answer to: what happened when NY-based Fania Records’ Panamanian-born, Harvard-educated, former mailroom clerk (Ruben Blades) teamed up with the label’s resident bad boy prodigy from The Bronx (Willie Colon)? Two of salsa’s all-time classic albums were born, one of which is considered, arguably, the genre’s finest moment.

Preceded by Colon's much lauded
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly [Fania-1975]--featuring Blades and the departing Hector Lavoe--Metiendo Mano! has been eclipsed over the years by both its predecessor and the monster album that followed. But not only is the record a worthy document of salsa's golden era, it establishes Blades' rep as a crooner who could also narrate meditations on the downtrodden and those on the margins of society, as well as such controversial topics as colonialism and racism, both convincingly and with grace. Latin dance music didn't really tackle socio-political subject matter before, but much like born again Christian salseros Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, Blades and Colon made sure the message never got in the way of the groove.

Metiendo Mano! is regarded by many as not only a solid precursor to bigger things to come, but a
salsa classic; one that plays "lean and mean, and thus light on its feet, like a welterweight boxer." How apropos. Some of the highlights include "Segun el Color", "Plantacion Adentro", "La Mora", and our personal fave "Pablo Pueblo", which in the mid '90s became the unofficial theme song to Blades' unsuccessful bid for the presidency of his native Panama.


Metiendo Mano! had its fair share of covers--5 of the 9 tracks to be exact--but Siembra, with one lone exception, was penned entirely by Blades and remains his most impressive batch of tunes. Kicking off with "Plastico", a blunt attack on empty consumerism and racial/class-related prejudice, capped off with a rallying cry for Latin American unity, the album is undoubtedly a reflection of the harsh times in which it was created. However, Siembra is rarely heavy-handed in its approach, as evidenced by the inclusion of a tender love song such as "Dime", with its joyous and infectious swing, one of the album's definitive moments. (Much props to Colon for his killer arrangements throughout.) It also happens to be home to "Pedro Navaja", a re-imagining of "Mack the Knife" as a tragic Lower East Side slice of life; it is Siembra's best known track and one of the great anthems of modern Spanish-language music.

A landmark recording universally beloved in Latin America more than 30 years after its release, Siembra is both the best-selling salsa album of all time--hovering, purportedly, in the 25 million copies range--and considered to be "one of the indisputable masterpieces of 1970s New York salsa". There are those who believe it's the salsa masterpiece. We're not inclined to disagree.