A compositional and poetic masterpiece, Rubén Blades’ and Willie Colón’s Siembra set new artistic and commercial heights, not merely in salsa, but in all types of music. Although not the first “concept” album in the salsa repertory, Siembra ranks along with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and Eddie Palmieri’s Justicia in its innovative artistry, brilliant musicality and momentous social and political commentary. This album, which was in the majority of Latino’s homes, launched Blades and Colón’s careers internationally.
Musically, it offered salsa, bomba, cumbia and son montuno rhythms to a growing salsa audience, while poetically it directed its message of cultural pride, social justice and
political liberation to Latinos living throughout the Americas during a time of intense political oppression. “Plástico” is Blades’ manifesto to Latinos, warning them of the “plasticity” of American materialist spending, social climbing and urban “progress.” It also speaks of Latinos’ own history of racial discrimination: diciendo a su hijo de cinco años, “no jueges con niños de color extraño” (telling his five-year-old child, “don’t play with children of different skin color”).
Beginning with a not-so-subtle parody of disco, the music hastily launches into the first verse accompanied by salsa and bomba rhythms. Trombonedriven mambos bridge the sequences of Rubén’s soneos and the aphoristic coro (chorus). “Plástico” ends by paying homage to the people, who were proud of their heritage and of being latino. “Buscando Guayaba” is a classic son montuno that Luisito Cruz, Jr. arranged in the style of Arsenio Rodríguez. As Blades indulges in the play of double entendres – buscando guayaba ando yo, que tenga sabor, que tenga mucho mendo (looking for a girl with flavor, a girl with some spice) – we also hear solos on trombone and timbales, which is usually lacking in contemporary commercial salsa.
For “Pedro Navaja,” Blades took Bertolt Brecht’s characters as well as the tune from The Three Penny Opera’s “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” and reset the characters in El Barrio. Blades brilliantly captures Brecht’s use of satire, social criticism and estrangement, making “Pedro Navaja” an excellent study in dramatic, poetic and musical intertextuality. Blades’ main characters “Pedro Navaja,” esa mujer (the woman) and el borracho (the drunk) are anti-heroes as well as victims of an ultimately contradictory and unjust society, satirically reminding us of the violent reality of barrio life. Luís Ortíz’s musical arrangement is an equally valuable study in the intricacies of treating clave. It is true artistry in rhythm!
“María Lionza” is Blades’ passionate tribute to Venezuela’s most popular patron saint. Colón, who arranged the piece, vividly evokes the indigenous origins of María Lionza especially in the introduction when we hear a whole-tone passage played on the piano. The ritual-like vocalizations and the Afro-Brazilian berimbau, which like María Lionza, is an artifact of the cultural and racial miscegenation – the African, Iberian and Native American – that is Latin American music and culture. “Ojos” is an eloquent homage to all humanity as seen through the eyes of elders, the youth, kings, vagabonds, the imprisoned, the hopeful, neighbors, the blind and of el pueblo. The convergence of poetic eloquence and musicality, especially the arrangement’s collective articulation of clave, is perhaps this album’s most consistent artistic feature.
Excelling once again in the use of rhythms from Latin America, Blades and arranger Luisito Cruz, Jr. seamlessly bring together cumbia and salsa rhythms throughout the verses of “Dime.” Once having launched into the montuno, we hear some of the most exciting elements of Blades’ and Willie’s music – a swinging bass line that marks clave for even the most clave-hindered dancer; Willie’s trombone moña, and Rubén’s swinging soneos, which is very rare in salsa.
“Siembra” is the album’s resounding musical, poetic, and philosophical epilogue. The message is clear, you will reap (de acuerdo a la semilla) what you sow (asi sera las frutas que recogeras)! For the arrangement of what would become the title song of the LP, Colón contacted the Argentine Franzetti who worked with Colón on previous recordings. Franzetti prepared the arrangement for Siembra for four trombones and rhythm section. It wasn’t until a few weeks after the initial recording session, which Franzetti conducted, that Colón called Franzetti asking for strings to be added. Having only the morning to complete the job, Franzetti rushed the parts over to La Tierra Sound Studios for the string overdub, thereby completing what would become the signature opus of the album.
Besides being a musical and poetic masterpiece, this album stands as a historical document of the political and social upheaval facing Latin Americans in the late 1970s. As for its significance to contemporary Latino music and identity, Siembra stands as a testament to the consonance of artistic principles, cultural pride, and commercial success. Olvidate de lo plástico que eso nunca deja na’. Siembra y
confía en la mañana nunca te repentirás. (Forget about materialism it’s worth nothing. Plant seeds today and a better tomorrow will come; you won’t regret it.)
Willie Colón & Rubén Blades Siembra by David García