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Blades, Ruben - Salsa/Pop

Editor: Alison Weinstock

       Page 2

Singer, actor and political figure, Blades was born on 16 July 1948, in Panama City, Panama.

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From an early age, Blades was exposed to music through both of his parents. His mother played the piano and his father percussion. "My mother, Anoland Bellido de Luna, was born in Cuba. She was a singer and a piano player, excellent at both, and she went to Panamá in the late forties and she stayed there. She met my father who, at the time, was also a musician, Ruben Blades, born in Santa Marta, Colombia, and he went to Panamá when he was very little." His grandmother also had a great influence on him. "My abuela Emma who was with me at all times, instilled me with a sense of justice, that we can all serve as part of the solution. That is the perspective from which I developed and the foundation to help me move forward."

During his adolescence, his family was relatively poor as was Panama's general economic situation. At that time there was also political turmoil in the country, particularly the vexing problem of the Panama Canal and relations with the United States. In 1964, a conflict over flying the flag resulted in 25 people dead and deeply influenced Blades. "They turned friends into enemies. Even today, that's the pity of U.S. policy in Latin America."  It opened his eyes and, like many in Panama who had previously been pro American, he started to ask political and social questions. After this "political awakening", he continued his studies and eventually entered the law school at the University of Panama.

Meanwhile, his musical inclinations prompted him to sing with some musical groups such as El Conjunto Latino de Papi Arozamena. He performed occasionally with both Los Salvajes del Ritmo and Bush y sus Magnificos, and sang on recordings by both groups. But pressures from the university professors forced him to abandon singing for a while. "In Panamá I had to quit performing because teachers in the national university were against my performing. So that I was called and told, 'You are not to perform again while you are a student of the faculty of law and political science in this university.'"

In 1968, the university closed due to riots, so he traveled to New York City and contacted Pancho Cristal, Cheo Feliciano's producer. Cristal had heard Blades sing in Panama and offered to get him into Pete Rodríguez' band to make a record. Ruben was happy to accept and realized the start of his professional music career.

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Despite continuing political and economic problems in Panama, Blades returned to the country until he managed to get his law degree when the university reopened.

Subsequently, he went to Miami and then to New York, again, to further develop his music. He landed a job at Fania Records in New York as a mailboy. "They wouldn't record me. I had to push a cart full of mail from 57th and Broadway to 52nd Street every day."  While the job was not glamorous and far removed from music, it gave him contact with important people in the New York Latin music scene.

His break came when Ray Barretto was looking for someone to replace the vocalist in his band. Barretto was told that Blades could be his man, and he set up an audition for him. The result was that Blades gave up his job at Fania to immediately join Barretto's group. At the same time, other performers began recording the songs he had written, and he provided backup and guest vocals for other Fania recordings, and the Fania All-Stars.

Special article: The Collaboration of Willie Colón/Rubén Blades at Fania Records

In 1976, Ruben Blades became the replacement vocalist for Héctor Lavoe, who had left Willie Colón's band. Colón and Blades would later start what eventually would represent an important shift in salsa music. "With album with Colón, Metiendo Mano, two of Blades' song,: "Plantación Adentro" and "Pablo Pueblo", stood out and had a tremendous impact on salsa fans as well as musicians, for his vision on social issues.

The following record, Siembra, expands on the musical and social vision of the former. The repercussions of the song "Pedro Navaja" topped all records for salsa songs. The record sold more than a million copies and hit first place on the charts of most Spanish speaking countries (gold and platinum) as well as the United States. The smash hit song "Pedro Navaja" made people realize the enormous influence salsa could have as a vehicle for social commentary. The public's reaction was instantaneous and overwhelmingly positive. "All of a sudden you had a record that was confronting issues and that was unheard of at the time."

In 1982, Blades discovered his talents as an actor in the cinema. Fania owner Jerry Massucci offered him a role in a low budget movie he was producing entitled "The Last Fight," directed by Fred Williamson. "I played a boxer who also sang, so we could sell a few records." Although the film had no impact, it elicited Blades' interest in the film medium and sparked a successful career as an actor.

However, success as an actor did not derail Blades' singing career nor his abiding interest in Latin music. After six years with Willie Colón, Blades decided it was time to form his own band so he could develop his own musical ideas, and  problems with Fania Records prompted Blades to sign with Elektra Records. He started Seis del Solar, experimenting with new salsa formats. He eliminated the brass section and utilized certain keys closer to rock music. He recorded Buscando America  with the group. That album included several great songs including the title track, partial Real Audio clip Buscando America. "I wanted to make an urban American album that can be appreciated by any American city dweller and may bring people who haven't identified with salsa a bit closer to us."

After its success, he took some time off to attend Harvard University School of Law. "I'm looking forward to my studies as a change of pace. You can become a little complacent in your own field, just from being too close to it. Besides, I want to be known as something besides a performer when I finally return to Panama." He earned a Master's Degree in International Law in 1985. "I needed something to humble myself, and believe me, that school, which was no picnic, did it." The documentary "The Return of Ruben Blades" captures his graduation, and his return to performing.

His next album was Escenas, bringing him his first Grammy. Next came Agua de Luna  a theme inspired by a series of short stories by noted Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez.  

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