by Ruben Blades
It was an honor and a rare privilege to have had the opportunity to perform with one of the world's top Philharmonic Orchestras, led by the great Gustavo Dudamel, considered one of today's best classical conductors.
Equally important to me was the circumstance of participating in an experiment that went beyond the musical aspect because it challenged cultural notions of conformity.
It was a tough decision to make but Gustavo and I, supported by a wonderful orchestra, decided it was worth the risk. The purported obstacles were evident. It was an evening highlighting latin music, which included in its program a segment of "Salsa" supported by a superb band that specializes in classical themes. Gustavo and I had already presented this odd combination, afro-cuban rhythms supported
by classical strings, in a gigantic concert held at a civil airport in Caracas, Venezuela. More than 200, 000 people attended. The presentation was based on a musical work in two parts titled "Maestra Vida", that I had written in the late 70's and recorded in the early 1980's. Many of the people who came to the show knew of the musical, its themes of life and death and family, its lyrics. It was and still is the only work of its kind that combined original salsa material with Caribbean percussion and a full classical orchestra.
That show, although completely beyond the notion of capacity, (I was told it was one of the largest gatherings of humanity ever recorded for a single concert in the history of live musical events in Latin-America), I am sure did not please everyone. Many people were disappointed because I did not play songs that have become classics, like "Decisiones", "El Cantante", or "Ligia Elena". Some people left once it became obvious to them that this was not another "Salsa'' concert.
However, the overwhelming majority of people stayed and shared a rare sight indeed: a performance were two genres that generally are markedly different in intention and atmosphere combined to produce a cultural contribution directed to all people.
The scenario in Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl, on the other hand, had different components. Commenting on the evening, the Los Angeles Times" music critic Mark Swed titled his review, "Ruben Blades gets lost in translation". The salsa star's performance with L.A. Philharmonic can't hold on to the crowd".
I do not want to sound defensive, nor do I dismiss Mr. Swed's review. But it is necessary for me to comment on some of his opinions.
He writes there was a, . . ."cross-culture disconnect at Bowl concert". But wasn't the evening precisely directed to confront and remedy such situation, which today exists in this country between latino and non latino audience? Wasn't it evident, in the context of our choice, to unite "Salsa", a genre of action and passion, with Classical music, a genre of reflection and intellect, that we were looking for something BIGGER than just pleasing a paying crowd, composed of different nationalities?
Mr. Swed writes . . . "try as the L.A. Phil might . . . this is not really full L.A. Phil material". This is the type of comment that forces me to respond to reviewers.
The "material" for a musician who performs in an orchestra such as the L.A. Philharmonic is MUSIC. It comes in all its different colors, tempos, accents and should be played by them. Indeed, they did play, and did it well, showing their
professionalism and their love for all music. The true musician, the same as the true intellectual, will always be curious. Such characteristic,
curiosity, encompasses the true definition of a free spirit. To suggest that Afro-Cuban music is not really the kind of stuff the L.A. Philharmonic could,
or should be performing sounds dangerously close to elitism, or worse.
Someone could then proceed to affirm that Classical music should only be heard by people with an European sensitivity . Or that a Shakespeare play should and could only be performed by actors other than Latinos. On that line of thought, Jose Ferrer should have not played "Cyrano de Bergerac", (Oscar 1953, best actor) and Danilo Perez, a Panamanian, shouldn't play Jazz.
I was not my usual self on stage, that is true. I had forgotten how large the Hollywood Bowl stage is, (like the Radio City Music Hall, you need a cab to take you to the other side). I became unsure as to the protocol on how to behave when the Orchestra was playing and I wasn't singing, (usually I get off the stage when my Salsa Band is playing so that people can look at them, and not at me). The setting of the stage, more operatic than intimate, the enormity of the stage, the emotional situation itself, proved enormous to handle.
Plus, many of those in the "picnic area" in front of the stage gave me the impression that we were a part of some sort of National Geographic-type of evening. Most of them seemed to have no clue on what was going on. And probably did not. Mr. Swed was right in pointing out that on these occasions we need translations to the words of the songs to be, either printed in the programs or projected on screens, in English and in Spanish.
Mr. Swed added that . . . "Blades . . . didn't quite know how to connect with the kind of mixed crowd, . . . ” Again, he was correct. Part of the problem was time constraints. In order to communicate with the crowd in either language, (and i had to do it in both) I'd be taking time away from a performance that only provided us with an hour to play. In my regular concerts I have two or three hours, which allows me to make that connection happen. The Bowl curfew’s weight was on me
But in this particular case, perhaps it was THE AUDIENCE the one who had to make the connection, with the material presented and the format employed to do so. All the screams I every so often heard through the busted ear-monitors i wore for most of the show, indicated a considerable amount of people, especially those in the back of the Bowl, who did not need to have the purpose of the evening spelled out, or explained. The music did motivated them, made them react and support what was happening on the stage. It was not a total "disconnect".
Finally, the review, no matter how respectful it is, suggests this show was a wasted opportunity. To me it was not. It made a valuable and crucial contribution, to bring these type of programs intending to not only integrate music from different cultural sources but to also bring its audiences together as well.
As every early experiment shows, results will be mixed. Not all will succeed at first. "Something" . . . Mr. Swed writes. . . "and I am not sure what, was lacking". . .
Perhaps what was lacking for some members of the audience was the musical curiosity, coupled with the understanding and solidarity needed to enjoy an event with such a laudable cultural purpose. Culture is not for the narrow minded.
Instead, perhaps Mr. Swed and others went with the type of expectations that, as any experiment will prove, are difficult to meet the first time around, especially in polarized scenarios, as those defining cultural issues in this country are becoming.
Once again, to Gustavo Dudamel, to the L.A. Philharmonic, to the Hollywood Bowl and to the 8,888 plus who attended, THANK YOU for the opportunity of a lifetime. It will always be a special gig for me.
August 1st, 2014
LA Times Review
Two years ago, on a warm July evening in Caracas, Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra were joined by Panamanian salsa star Rubén Blades for a huge outdoor concert. Bringing together for the first time two Latin American musical icons, the event reportedly generated enough electricity to light the Venezuelan capital and drew an audience in excess of 200,000.
More than that, a cast of actors, singers and an orchestra of 140 provided the first revival in 30 years of Blades' ambitious and absurdly neglected 1980 salsa opera, "Maestra Vida."
Tuesday night, as part of the Americas & Americans Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, Dudamel invited Blades to join him and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a set of numbers that included excerpts from "Maestra Vida." A little, however, got lost in the translation, or would have, had there been a translation.
The evening was a strange one. It began with a warm-up first half of two short orchestral works — Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 4 and Emilio Kauderer's "Symphonic Tangos."
For his hourlong set after intermission, Blades was joined by both the L.A. Phil and his own six-member, all-male band of percussionists, bassist and backup singers.
The relatively sedate audience couldn't hold a candle to the Caracas crowd. The Bowl was half-full, attracting 8,888, which is not much greater than the number of listeners Dudamel and the L.A. Phil might draw on a typical Tuesday night of classical repertory.
And while there was a little lively dancing in the aisles (encouraged by both Dudamel and Blades), there were also picnickers squeezing past them to make an early exit. Without translations on the video screens for Blades' Spanish songs, too many clearly felt left out.
All of this was a shame, because Blades is a remarkable figure, and a full production of "Maestra Vida" ("Life as Teacher") — or even a concert performance like Dudamel's memorable "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci" Sunday night at the Bowl — could have proved revelatory. Then again, try as the L.A. Phil might — and there were hot brass solos — this is not really full L.A. Phil material.
Even Blades seemed a little out of his element this time. A lawyer, outspoken politician and, most of all, poet, he seems to have developed his engaging musical style as a vehicle for lyrics, not the other way around. At 66, his voice has become dry but is still serviceable. But he didn't quite know how to connect with the kind of mixed crowd, with the majority having "not yet" (as he put it in his brief English comments from the stage) learned Spanish.
In two parts, "Maestra Vida" explores the lives and relationships early in life and late, in the "alley of bored people," delving into the changing personal and political responsibilities. Justice and injustice have been themes in all forms that his career has taken.
"Maestra Vida" also expands the idea of salsa to include other Latin musical forms. A collaboration with trombonist Willie Colón, the opera was also full of instrumental experiments as well as formal and theatrical and poetic ones, including the first time Blades worked with strings.
Well ahead of its time, "Maestra Vida" was not a success. The two-LP set sold poorly and went out of print. It can lately be found, with some looking, on CD. Blades told the crowd Sunday he didn't know what to call the work, saying it wasn't an opera but maybe a musical. It's an opera.
In "Manuela" (expressing the world's most beautiful woman "in whom youth pulsates")and "El Nacimiento de Ramiro" (a celebration of the wonders of the birth of Manuela's son) and, especially in "Maestra Vida" (an astonishing song looking back at life written by a 30-year-old), Blades brought a kind of remote but moving wistfulness to songs of his youth that now suggest a precocious maturity. He also offered a handful of his more popular numbers, including "Plastico" (his 1978 ode to plastic people) and "Pedro Navaja" (his take on "Mack the Knife").
But there wasn't any real sense of connection, beyond obvious mutual respect, with Dudamel or the L.A. Phil. Something, and I'm not sure what, was lacking. The Bolívars would do well to put their no doubt amazing "Maestra Vida" concert out on video.
Dudamel introduced the evening by saying that he wanted to include a thousand pieces, likening the process to packing for a trip and wanting to take everything with you. But when the suitcase won't close, you have to take things out.
This time, he packed too quickly. He kept Marquez's Danzón No. 4, a slyly ingratiating score, but couldn't fit in the Mexican composer's intriguing Ravelian Danzón No. 8 and took it out of the program. Instead, Dudamel kept the four featherweight tangos by Kauderer, who is best known as a film composer. They made the suitcase lighter, but that was about all.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times