Rubén Blades - Biography
Rubén Blades is a true Latino Renaissance man, who is widely known as a salsa singer, actor (in theatre, film, and television), and political activist. Arriving in New York City in the ‘70s with nothing but ambition, he wrote songs and worked with Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, and the Fania All Stars, creating some of salsa’s biggest hits, including the timeless “Pedro Navaja.” In the ‘80s, his film Crossover Dreams (1985 New Yorker Video) launched an acting career that would include prominent roles in Robert Redford’s Milagro Beanfield War (1988 Universal Pictures), Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock (1999 Cradle Productions), the network television series Gideon’s Crossing (2000/2001), and Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in México (2003 Columbia Pictures). He returned to his native Panama, created a new political party, and ran for President in ’94 drawing 18% of the vote; President Martín Torrijos invited him back to Panama in 2004 where he accepted appointment as the Minister of Tourism.
Born in Panama City, Panama on July 16, 1948, he was raised in a musical environment. His mother, who immigrated from Cuba, played piano, and his father was a police detective who played bongo and percussion. As a teenager he sang in his older brother’s doo-wop inspired band, The Saints. As a political science and law student at the University of Panama, he sang with a band called Los Salvajes del Ritmo (The Rhythm Savages). In 1968 he sang on a recording by Panamanian salsa band Bush y Sus Magníficos, and when authorities shut down the university in Panama he went to New York City and recorded From Panama to New York (1970 Fania) with Pete Rodriguez, featuring his original compositions. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Panama to finish his studies, returning again to New York upon graduation in 1974.
While working in the Fania Records mailroom, he auditioned for Ray Barretto’s popular band and secured a spot replacing Tito Allen. His original contribution to Barretto (1975 Fania) was the hit song “Canto Abacua”, which earned him the “Composer of the Year” award by Latin New York magazine. He appeared as a vocalist on pianist Larry Harlow’s La Raza Latina: Salsa Suite (1977 Fania) and finally stepped into the spotlight with Willie Colon presents Rubén Blades Metiendo Mano (1977 Fania). The album begins with Blades’ composition “Pablo Pubelo” about a working man’s struggles and a tune he used in his campaign for President of Panama. Their performance of “Plantación Adentro,” a song about the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and their mistreatment in colonial times, by legendary Puerto Rican composer T. Curet Alonso, resonated throughout Latin America.
His next effort with salsa’s famed bad boy trombonist Willie Colon, Siembra [Sowing] (1978 Fania), became the biggest selling salsa record in history, cementing Blades’ star persona. “Plástico” jumpstarts the set with a straight disco intro that breaks into a smart salsa tune admonishing consumer materialism and bigotry, then ends with Blades shouting out the names of Latin countries to which a chorus responds, “presente” or present. “Buscando Guayaba” rides a gentle Cuban son montuno rhythm with saucy double-entendre lyrics and gives space for trombone and timbale solos. Taking inspiration (and vocal phrasing) from “Mack the Knife,” the song “Pedro Navaja” tells a brilliant Brechtian tale of a prostitute and a drunk. Incorporating police sirens and barrio street corner chatter from the beginning, the epic-length tune builds dramatic tension and in a crescendo breaks into the English phrase “I like to live in America.” Its dialectic chorus, “La Vida te da sopresas, sopresas te da la vida, Ay Dios!” or “Life gives you surprises, surprises give you life, My God!” struck a chord. The song quickly became the most commercially successful single in the history of salsa and its appeal has stood the test of time.
“Juan Pachanga” was another Blades hit that appeared on the Fania All Stars’ Rhythm Machine (1977 Columbia) as they were achieving crossover success. Maestra Vida (My Life) was an ambitious salsa opera, of sorts, in two parts released in 1980 by Fania; the song “Manuela” reflects on the main character in this conceptual vehicle for social commentary. Blades’ last collaboration for Fania records with Willie Colon was the brilliant Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos (1981 Fania). The rumba-salsa track “Tiburón” (Shark) achieved notoriety when banned by Miami radio stations for its mere mention of El Salvador (and comparing US foreign policy to a shark). The upbeat “El Telefonito” is a humorous tale that reprises the Puerto Rican “trabalengua” (tongue twister) bomba of Mon Rivera.
In 1982 he began his acting career, portraying a singer/boxer in The Last Fight (1983 Best Film & Video). Meanwhile, Blades tried unsuccessfully to get out of his onerous contract with Fania records and owner Jerry Masucci that led to an acrimonious split between them. So, Blades formed a new band, Seis del Solar, with Oscar Hernandez on keyboards and Ralph Irizarry on timbales and percussion, and signed to Elektra Records. His first release under his new major label deal was Buscando América (Looking for America) in 1984 with its anthem-ready title track. Doo-wop, rumba, rock, nueva trova, and salsa are all part of the brew that propels his poetic verse and gives voice to the dispossessed.
Escenas (1985 Elektra) expanded his musical base and included a version of the hit song “Muévete” by Cuba’s Los Van Van. Guest appearances include Linda Ronstadt on vocals and Joe Jackson on keys as well as Puerto Rican cuatro guitar ace Yomo Toro. Agua de Luna (1987 Elektra) was a departure from dance-oriented music as he took poetic inspiration from Gabriel García Márquez, each song based on a story by the literary lion of “magic realism.” Antecedente (1988 Elektra) was a return to his salsa roots and “Patria” (homeland) would become an anthem of pride among his fellow Panamanians. Like Escenas, it won the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance.
Throughout the ‘80s, Blades kept busy with other pursuits. He co-wrote and starred as an ambitious salsa singer in the independent film Crossover Dreams (1985). Taking a brief hiatus from music, he earned his masters degree in international law from Harvard University School of Law in 1985. That and his subsequent return to stage was the subject of a excellent documentary film, The Return of Rubén Blades (1985 Channel Four Films). Deciding to do an English language recording, he enlisted the help of Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and Sting for Nothing But the Truth (1988 Elektra). Nailed in time by its heavy synthesizer tones, the record is a mix of rock and pop, and includes a doo-wop song about Ollie North, “Ollie’s Doo-Wop,” two songs co-written with Reed, “Letters to the Vatican” and “The Calm Before the Storm,” and a song about the civil war “In Salvador.”
His reputation as a dynamic live performer is confirmed with Live! (1990 Elektra), which boasts an enlarged band billed as Son del Solar. Originally released on cassette (the CD version omits the tune “Patria”), he reprises his hits, mixing older and newer material, and allows his skilled musicians to stretch out. He returned to salsa with his band Son del Solar, and switched labels for Caminando (1991 Sony), which peaked at #3 on the Billboard salsa/tropical charts. Amor y Control (1992 Sony) starts with a merengue, “El Apagón,” several songs highlights his Panamanian homeland, and a trio of tunes focus on his recently passed mother. “West Indian Man” is a tribute to those who came to Panama to work on the canal and calls to mind his father’s St. Lucian ancestry, and “Conmemorando” marks the 500th anniversary of Europe’s entrée into the Americas.
Returning to Panama, he founded the Movimiento Papa Egoró and, although not victorious, ran a respectable race for the presidency in 1994. Inspired by his experience, he recorded La Rosa de Los Vientos (1996 Sony) whose title refers to a 16th century nautical chart that marks the directional horizon. Backed by a new group of all Panamanian musicians and playing songs all written by Panamanian composers, the result is unlike any of his other endeavors. Blades plays guitar and stretches his voice through a diverse set, mixing the folkloric and modern with slower ballads, up-tempo salsa and hints of jazz and funk. The band shows its agility and Blades demonstrates his pan-American sensibility, as they roll out the accordion for two tunes that use the cumbia rhythm. He added another Grammy to his collection, taking home the award for Best Tropical Latin Performance of 1996.
He joined the cast of Paul Simon’s short-lived Broadway musical Capeman in 1997, starring alongside Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario. Devoting more of his time to an ascendant acting career, he nonetheless returned to the studio with the Costa Rican jazz-folk group Editus to record Tiempos [Times] (1999 Sony). Rooted in Afro-Cuban percussion, the small ensemble deftly tackles another diverse palette of Latin colors. Dual violins and jazz leanings give the songs their distinct texture while the poetic lyrics also show a somber side, tempered by the weight of social injustice. His most acoustic endeavor to date won yet another Grammy in 1999, ironically for Best Latin Pop Performance.
Busy with television and film work, Blades relocated to Los Angeles and surprised everyone with his brilliant Mundo [World] (2002 Sony). Working again with Editus and the bagpiper from Bad Haggis, he explores the musical crossroads of the Iberian Peninsula, the Celtic connection, and the African Diaspora in the Americas. The musically sophisticated songs are matched by erudite lyrics. In great voice throughout, he channels the awesome gravelly power of the late flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla and gives the world the most unusual interpretation of the Irish standard “Danny Boy” (dedicated to New York firefighters who perished on 9/11). The result was another Grammy, this time in an unlikely yet appropriate category, for Best World Music Album of 2002.
Blades teamed up with some of his old New York cohorts, contributing vocal performances on Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Across 110th Street (2004 Red Ink). Backed by old school hard-hitting salsa veterans, Blades gives a stellar performance on his comical composition “Tú Te Lo Pierdes,” a street scene vignette about a stutterer and a prostitute. He also sings a smoking bi-lingual version of “Sympathy for the Devil” on drummers Horacio “El Negro” Hernadez and Robby Ameen’s project, Robby and Negro at the Third World War (2005 American Clave). Meanwhile, Panama elected Martín Torrijos President in 2004 and when he beckoned, Blades agreed to assume a five-year posting as Panama’s Minister of Tourism. Busy in the booming Panama City with his ministerial portfolio, Blades finds time to appear at music festivals, hosting musicians from all of Latin America, and produces a show on the Internet, “El Show de Rúben Blades.” Singer, songwriter, actor, lawyer, and now, government Minister, Blades’ career and talent knows no bounds.