By 1980, Rubén Blades had been a working-class hero for nigh on ten years, singing of everyday life in classics like "Pedro Navaja," but with help from Willie Colón, the two-part epic Maestra Vida ties music and narrated drama like nothing else in his catalog. One of the first (and only) salsa operas, Maestra Vida introduced the characters Carmelo and Manuela, a couple whose story, as the narration suggests, could be the story of innumerable descendants of the musicians who appear here. The five-minute "Prólogo" introduces the story with an orchestral fanfare and a beginning narration that places the characters in their context. "Manuela" is the closest the entire LP comes to straight-ahead salsa, followed by themes for Carmelo the husband and then Manuela the wife, Blades' own mother, Anoland Diaz, taking the vocals for Manuela (who joins her son in a warm duet). "La Fiesta" provides some light comedy (it's an instrumental, but with reveling voices in the background) before the couple's son Ramiro is born. The ultimate summation of Blades' dramatic vision with Colón's expressive musical abilities, Maestra Vida is ambitious, freewheeling, and celebratory -- not an immediate success, but a rewarding listen for those who've heard the six-minute snapshots from Blades' earlier recordings and want to hear the full-length treatment.
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AllMusic Review by John Bush