Editor: Alison Weinstock, publisher of Ruben Blades Discography & Song Reference
Singer, actor and political figure, Blades was born on 16 July 1948, in Panama City, Panama.
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. At that time there was also political turmoil in the country, particularly with the issue of the Panama Canal and relations with the United States. He had grown up on U.S. culture and rock & roll. But in 1964, 21 civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in student riots, by U.S. soldiers, when students tried to fly the flag of Panama next to that of the U.S. at Balboa High School. This event was traumatic for the nation, 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 Arosemena. 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 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 together with the Pete Rodríguez Orchestra to make a record. From Panama to New York was released in 1970 but didn’t attract much attention at that time.
Despite continuing political and economic problems in Panama, Blades returned to the country to finish his law degree when the university reopened.
Immediately after graduating, he joined his family in Miami and then again to New York, to further develop his music. He took the only job available at Fania Records in New York, as a mailboy.
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.
Other performers such as Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, and Ismael Miranda had recorded his compositions, but his real 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. He shared lead vocals with Tito Gomez on the album “Barretto” (1975.) He also provided backup and guest vocals for other Fania recordings, and the Fania All-Stars.
“Ray was more interested in Afro-Cuban music and jazz. Willie was more interested with things that had to do with Latin America, and he allowed me to record my songs. It was a wonderful group of people, which I had the privilege to meet and work with."
The following record, Siembra (1978), 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."
This ground-breaking album was followed by another, the two part Maestra Vida (1980), a musical drama using characters to explore social issues in a very personal way.
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, experience 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. His discontent with the business practices of Fania Records had grown, and 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 (1984) 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, with the long-term goal of returning Panama with the credentials to be taken seriously. 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 (1985), bringing him his first Grammy. Next came Agua de Luna (1987); a theme inspired by a series of short stories by noted Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez.
Blades did not stop there. He explored rock music in an effort to incorporate new facets into his music. Rock stars such as Lou Reed and Elvis Costello took an interest in his work resulting in an English language record Nothing But the Truth (1988) where he carried on using different rhythms from distinct cultural sources.
“I want people to acknowledge the possibilities of a Latin artist fully - meaning we can do English, too."
The musical relationships with non Latin artists continue to this day.
Meanwhile, his devotion to his roots continued as Seis del Solar evolved to become Son del Solar, where Blades continued to explore the trajectory of Latin America’s social issues through music, adding a brass section to give the songs more speed and movement, and to align the sound to a more typical salsa band. His efforts yielded Antecedente (1988) and another Grammy award.
Foto courtesy of Orosmán de la Guardia, ©2003 rubenblades.com
His film career also continued in 1985, in his second movie “Crossover Dreams.” He plays a Latin musician trying to introduce himself into the American market, and he also co-wrote the screenplay. It was critically acclaimed and went into general release as a successful independent film.
“I can’t say enough for the people of East Harlem. They brought us soup and let us film in their homes in exchange for our painting them. Everybody in the community cooperated. It was a Latin effort done by ourselves to help ourselves."
While it helped him hone his acting skills, his convincing interpretation confused many people about his career goals, and the role is sometimes mistakenly thought to be autobiographical. But offers of short roles in important productions started coming, based on the strength of this performance. This prompted Blades to move to California where he gradually acquired a measure of prestige as an actor; appearing in movies with Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Jack Nicholson and other Hollywood heavyweights.
His first important cinema role was in “The Milagro Beanfield War”, directed by Robert Redford. It was followed by a leading role in “Dead Man Out”, where his portrait of a killer on death row earned him the Cable ACE Best Actor Award for movies produced for cable television.
Other acting credits include: The Two Jakes (1990), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), The Super (1991), Crazy From The Heart and “The Josephine Baker Story” (both 1991), both earning him Emmy nominations; “One Man’s War” (1991), “A Million to Juan” (1994), “Color of Night” (1994), “Scorpion Spring” (1996), “Chinese Box” (1997), “The Devil’s Own” (1997), the Broadway musical “The Capeman” by Paul Simon (1998), “Cradle Will Rock” (1999), “All the Pretty Horses” (2000), the tv series “Gideon’s Crossing” (2000), “Assassination Tango” (2002), and “Maldonado Miracle” (2003.)
“I started acting by choice, however, when I get involved in something, I try to learn everything there is, and what I learned in Hollywood and television in this country is that you can’t sit around and wait for the opportunities to come by."
1991 saw the release of Caminando with Son del Solar, followed by Amor y Control (1992.) This album was dedicated to his mother, who had died the previous year, and also marked the end of his association with Son del Solar. These productions continued to show that salsa music could be much more than escapist or just entertainment. It could be a mechanism for social comment and an instrument for change. But he was finally ready to return to Panama, wanting to have a direct effect on the people he had been singing about.
True to his social activism, Ruben Blades ran for president of Panama in 1994, as the founder and head of the Papa Egaro Movement. He ran on a platform of social equity grounded in a sense of ethics and equality between cultural and social groups across all economic classes.
“In order to sustain the integrity of the work, I felt I had to go out there on the streets and try to make political change possible through the political process, not just singing. We proved it could work. We came in third out of 24 parties, with 18% of the vote. I’m a better, less selfish person for it."
In 2000 he was named a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, and appeared at colleges, meeting with students and speaking against racism.
After his run for president, Blades returned his attention to his music, producing a trilogy of Grammy winning recordings: La Rosa de los Vientos (1996), with Panamanian musicians and composers, that moves towards a unity between the various rhythms and styles in Latin music, as evidenced in the song La Rosa de los Vientos; Tiempos (1999) with Editus, in which he incorporated elements of contemporary classical music and jazz; and Mundo (2002), also with Editus Ensemble and other artists, fusing Irish, Arabic and Afro-Cuban instruments and rhythms. The song Estampa reflects his ideas that all music is connected. This album can be considered the magnum opus of his career.
“Racism is absurd and my new record reflects that."
These three very different albums display his genius, originality and depth, musical as well as social - three exceptional albums befitting of his enormous talents.
He is now experimenting with distributing music over the internet through his web site, bypassing record companies, contracts, and marketing. At his website he is offering a group of songs by various artists for free download. Payment is optional, but for those who do, there is a bonus song which he says will be part of a continuation of “Maestra Vida.”
Blades plans to return to his country to live at the end of 2003, to do public service and to be with his family, for at least the next five years, pulling back from his musical and film careers, but perhaps writing books. He will support the presidential candidate Martin Torrijos in 2004, and hopes that he can fulfill his goal of improving conditions in Panama.
“When I go back to Panama, I’m going to be very happy to be there because I really believe in my country and I know we’re going to do good things there. It’s not just a romantic dream; we can make things happen there."
Other recent releases include compilations Siembra y Otros Favoritos and Salsa Caliente de Nu York from the Fania catalog, Greatest Hits from the Elektra years, and Una Decada, a compilation from Sony.
Una Decada (2003)
Salsa Caliente de Nu York (2002)
Sembra Y Otros Favoritos Salsa Para Siempre (2001)
From Panama (2000)
Sus Más Grandes Exitos (1998)
Rosa de Los Vientos (1996)
Greatest Hits (1996)
Mucho Mejor [Westwind] (1995)
Poeta Lation (1993)
Joseph & His Brothers (1993)
Rubén Blades with Strings (1992)
Mucho Mejoy [Fania] (1992)
El Que La Hace La Paga (1992)
Doble Filo (1992)
Best of Rubén Blades (1992)
Amoy Y Control (1992)
Rubén Blades y Son del Solar...Live! (1990)
Nothing But The Truth (1988)
Crossover Dreams (1986)
Aqua de Luna (1986)
Buscando América (1984)
Maestra Vida: Segunda Parte (1980)
Maestra Vida: Primera Parte (1980)
Bohemio y Poeta (1989)
Willie Colon Presents Rubén Blades (----)