Seven years ago, El poeta de la salsa Rubén Blades announced, among his many future recording projects, a collaboration with longtime friend and role model Cheo Feliciano. But, first, Blades had to end his tenure as Panamá’s Minister of Tourism.
Blades has been playing catch-up since he left the post in 2009. He embarked on the “Todos Vuelven” tour with his former associates of Seis del Solar (captured on a two-volume DVD/CD), on another tour alongside El caballero de la salsa Gilberto Santa Rosa, and independently released his first CD of original songs since “Mundo” (2002): “Cantares del subdesarrollo.” Its eleven tracks took him back to the world he so beautifully described in his masterpiece “Maestra Vida I & II.”
The songs were originally recorded in his garage as demos in 2003, with Blades playing almost every instrument. The album’s spare arrangements are at the service of the lyrics and not the other way around. They are raw, naked and full of life. Here’s the singer-songwriter as chronicler, observer, poet and critic of his times. Songs like “País Portátil,” “Símbolo” and “El Himno de los Olvidados” are full of anger, humor, hope, love and pride. They are timeless and yet very much of the times we live in.
Blades follows this one-two recording and touring punch with a technical knockout, the one album music lovers like myself have been waiting for since that announcement seven years ago: “Eba Say Ajá” (a play on the expression “Everybody say ajá” used by both Cheo Feliciano and Rubén Blades on their concerts). The concept is simple: Blades chooses and sings his favorite Cheo Feliciano songs and vice versa. They chose the tracks wisely, playing to their strengths while engaging on a musical conversation about their own careers, how they influenced each other, and the role salsa played in portraying the lives, loves and concerns of working class Latinos.
Feliciano’s choices (“Dime,” “Juana Mayo,” “Sin Tu Cariño,” and a new Blades’ composition “Inodoro Pérez”) showcase his double role as the voice of such urban chroniclers as journalist and songwriter Tite Curet Alonso, and as the ultimate crooner, the man whose silky voice wooed and celebrated women. A singer who started his career as a student of the great Tito Rodríguez and ended up surpassing his master.
Feliciano’s selections also showcase Blades’ versatility and his mastery of the written word and rhyming patterns. Feliciano injects empathy and tenderness to each song, even when he is singing about a character as disagreeable as the aforementioned Inodoro Pérez, the prototypical individual who has an opinion about everything but who contributes absolutely nothing to society. There is also joy in Feliciano’s performance. You can hear in his voice how he relishes the opportunity to sing these songs.
Blades’ selection is equally savvy. It digs deep into Feliciano’s catalogue: “Niña” (the album’s opening track, a chant to the Orishas), “De aquí pa’llá” (which Blades turns into a celebration of the cultural ties that unite Puerto Rico and Panamá), “Franqueza Cruel” (from the 1971 album “Cheo” which relaunched and saved Feliciano’s career), “Los Entierros,” and two Joe Cuba classics for their duets, “Lo Bueno Ya Viene” and “Busca Lo Tuyo.” You can also hear the joy, the sheer pleasure, in Blades’ voice as he celebrates a man who taught him so much.
Luis García’s vibes-heavy arrangements take us back in time to Feliciano’s first albums with the Joe Cuba Sextet and as a solo artist. García has dispensed of the horn section, giving these tracks a certain elegance; and yet, they are as hard-swinging, as danceable, as any salsa dura tracks arranged by Willie Colón, Johnny Pacheco or even Papo Lucca.
“Eba Say Ajá” celebrates life, celebrates a musical culture, and a long friendship. It celebrates a man, Cheo Feliciano, whose vocal stylings are, to this date, unsurpassable. And it does so with style and a whole lot of swing.