In 1978, Ruben Blades and Willie Colón teamed up to release ‘Siembra’. This seven-track album achieved massive success across the Latin American continent and became the best-selling salsa album of all time. And although it includes some remarkable songs such as ‘Plástico’ or ‘María Lionza’, the track that boosted its popularity was ‘Pedro Navaja’, currently considered one of the greatest Latin songs ever written.
With a fresh sound for the time and a particular narrative, the song tells us the story of a criminal called Pedro Navaja, who dies in his intent to kill a prostitute in a neighbourhood of New York City. Later on, from the second half of the track, the narrator concludes with a message that would provide us one of the most memorable phrases in the history of Latin American music: La vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida (life gives you surprises, surprises it gives you).
The origin of the character
The song was inspired in ‘Mack the Knife’, a jazz song performed in 1956 by American artist Louis Armstrong which was, at the same time, an adaptation of the 1928 German song ‘Mackie Messer’ by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. However, this character’s origin goes much further – Pedro Navaja appeared for the first time with the name of Jack Sheppard, a notorious English thief and prison escapee of the 18th century.
According to his autobiography (believed to be written by Daniel Dafoe), Jack Sheppard was a promising young carpenter who ended up being a criminal due to the influence of Elisabeth Lyon, a prostitute who became his lover.
As Sheppard started to show his abilities to escape from prison, his popularity increased among the people. Unfortunately for him, his career came to an end when the authorities decided to take him to the gallows after being captured for the fifth time. However, on the same day of his execution, Sheppard’s autobiography was released, reaching such popularity that in the following years became the inspiration for several plays.
The song was close to being left out
Although the quality and relevance of ‘Pedro Navaja’ is currently undeniable, it was very close not to be recorded at the time. That is because the directors at Fania Records considered the song too long. However, and fortunately for us, thanks to Blades’ insistence, they changed their mind, and the track could finally be a reality.