The release of a tango album by salsa legend Rubén Blades is not as surprising as it sounds. After all, many singers (Latin and not) before Blades have done it, as the tango has always been a source of bewitchment for musicians, dancers, and audiences worldwide. On the other hand, it is almost shocking to realize that, instead of putting his own spin on a set of standards as most singers do, perhaps complemented with a few new songs written especially for the occasion, Blades chose to rework 11 of his classic salsa compositions into the tango idiom. Blades surrounded himself with a superb cast of collaborators, first and foremost Argentine arranger and composer Carlos Franzetti, with whom he had worked assiduously in the past but who, curiously, is more of a jazz than a tango specialist. The Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Leopoldo Federico Orchestra, a world-class tango ensemble comprising four bandoneons, five violins, cello, double bass, and piano, are called in to provide the required instrumental textures. Everything is exquisitely crafted, but the final outcome is motley. Blades revealed that one of the main reasons behind this project was that he often felt his lyrics "were shortchanged by the salsa format," meaning that the sadness and melancholy of his stories were buried under all those horns and percussion. It should be clear that for Blades, as for any real tango connoisseur, the appeal of this music has very little to do with sexy dancing for tourists and a lot with tales of urban squalor and overall existential misery. Accordingly, the album's main revelation is to realize how naturally some of Blades' characters adjust to the new setting, particularly the portraits of long-lost women of "Paula C" and "Ella." With uptempo numbers or songs deeply rooted in their original sociocultural environment, things become more problematic. A case in point is the version of Blades' signature song, "Pedro Navaja," which is simply too iconic to be transplanted to a new locale, and its structure, with really long lyrics, no choruses, and a call-and-response section, does not easily fit the succinct tango mold. Furthermore, Blades' attempt to replace some words with Buenos Aires idioms, but leaving many others that are not commonly used around the River Plate, ends up becoming a linguistic hodgepodge for Spanish speakers. Realizing a slow tempo will not do, Blades gamely tries to make it into a milonga but runs into trouble when it reaches the famous coda and is forced to return to a salsa cadence, albeit singing the refrain twice as opposed to the original eight times. In conclusion, Tangos is a bold yet mixed experiment that sounds more like a cycle of song poems with orchestra than a tango record. Ironically, while casual listeners will appreciate the sophisticated arrangements and marvel at Blades' consummate skill as a lyricist and singer, those who are familiar with both Blades' work and tango music will find it at times startling and at other times baffling. ~ Mariano Prunes
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