There is no question that Rubén Blades' musical career got at least sidetracked after the mid-'80s, as the great salsa composer first completed his studies at Harvard Law School, then went into acting, and later into politics, eventually becoming Minister of Tourism of Panama between 2004-2009. Happily, Cantares del Subdesarrollo, his first album in six years, signals a magnificent return to basics. After decades of dabbling with crossover experiments or world music (some of these efforts eminently worthy of attention), Blades is back to his true strengths on an album that he conceived, musically, as a tribute to the late great Puerto Rican soneros Ismael Rivera and Tite Curet Alonso, and Ray Barretto, and lyrically as a continuation to the characters of his ambitious 1980 opera Maestra Vida. Fans of Blades' seminal work with Willie Colón will immediately notice the absence of horns on Cantares del Subdesarrollo, but upon realizing that Blades actually recorded all the instruments and voices by himself in the garage of his California home (with a little help from Walter Flores on flute and percussion and Marc Quiñones, Oscar Cruz, and Rey Cruz on congas), they will only gasp in admiration at how vibrant and classy this album sounds, and excuse a certain lack of variety in the arrangements as this is compensated by Blades' tasteful embellishments on the tres. More than anything else, what comes to the forefront on Cantares del Subdesarrollo is the return of Blades the master storyteller: his razor-sharp character studies and slice-of-life ghetto postcards, unsurpassed in the Spanish language, are back with a vengeance in "Las Calles," "El Tartamudo," and "El Reto." Equally at ease writing about hapless street bums or the forces of history, Blades can be alternatively hilarious, moving, incisive, enraged, or compassionate, in what is arguably his strongest set of songs since 1987's Agua de Luna. If one were to find any fault with Cantares del Subdesarrollo, it's that life in El Barrio for Blades seems to go about the same way it did in 1978, as if the new century, Internet, 9-11, and what have you brought no change at all to the daily lives, language, or mentality of the residents of his songs. The positive flip side of the coin is that Blades -- who initially distributed the album from his website only -- also refuses entrance to the new sounds, so that Cantares del Subdesarrollo is mercifully free from any reggaeton, cumbia, or hip-hop influences, a de facto presence in virtually the entire Latin music market today (and who could be more justified than Blades in cashing in a few favors, or guest appearances, since every serious reggaeton artist has been trying to become Blades' heir as the voice of the ghetto?). This is a fine salsa/son record, and happy to be just that. Naturally, as it also happens to be the work of one of the genre's greatest composers in absolute peak form, it turns out to be a lot more than just fine. So great to have you back, Mr. Blades.
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AllMusic Review by Mariano Prunes