Full name, Ruben Blades, Jr.; born July 16, 1948, in Panama City, Panama (first came to the U.S. in 1969); son of Ruben (a police officer) and Anoland (a radio actress and singer/pianist) Blades; married, wife's name, Lisa. Education: Law degree, University of Panama, 1974; Master of Law, Harvard University, 1985. Addresses: Record company-- Elektra, 962 N. La Cienega, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.
Ruben Blades is probably the best-selling performer of Latin salsa music in recent years. Though he most often sings in Spanish and is extremely popular with Latin Americans, he has gone beyond salsa's usual, primarily Hispanic audience to reach listeners from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Critics, and Blades himself, attribute his enormous success to the quality of his lyrics. As Pete Hamill phrased it in New York magazine, "Blades does not write jingles for teenagers, or moony ballads of self-pity and abandonment; his songs are about people, one at a time, and their universal problems; they're about exile, too, and brutality and the loss of political innocence; they're about the struggle to be decent."
At the same time, the stories Blades tells in his songs are backed with a salsa beat, designed for dancing. Blades feels that adding content to the salsa form answers a deep need in the Hispanic community. He explained to Hamill: "The radio and the songs were becoming companions of so many people. And sporadically, when a song would come on and speak, and talk about something more than mira-mira -let's-dance-baby-let's-dance, it struck a chord, a very sensitive spot in the audience." With his songs, and with his straightforward, unflashy image, he wishes to fight stereotypes generally associated with Hispanic performers--not only among the English-speaking members of his audiences, but among Hispanics themselves.
Blades was born in Panama City, Panama, on July 16, 1948. His father was a police officer, his mother sang and acted in radio soap operas; but he was most deeply influenced by his paternal grandmother, Emma. "Emma was some woman," Blades recounted for Hamill. "She had a character and a half.... She practiced yoga, she was a Rosicrucian, she was into spiritualism, she levitated, she was a vegetarian when nobody had even thought about it." His grandmother used to take him to the theater to watch American films, and, he told Eric Levin of People, she "instilled in me the desire for justice and truth."
During Blades's childhood and adolescence, "justice and truth" seemed almost synonymous with things American. He remembers being captivated by early American rock and roll along with many of his friends. "We didn't understand the words, but there was some kind of thing in there. Something we could intuitively associate--I guess--with what we were: kids," he explained to Hamill. Then, as Hamill reported, "Blades and his friends began singing doo-wop together, searching out buildings in Panama City that had echoes under the stairs, school bathrooms, anyplace that might help them sound like the new songs they were hearing on the radio." They sang in English, and Blades also sang in English when he joined his brother's band in 1963. In this latter experience he sang Frank Sinatra standards like "Strangers in the Night." But shortly afterwards Blades stopped singing in English, turning away from his interest in American music in shock and disgust, when Americans' refusal to fly the Panamanian flag alongside their own over a Canal Zone high school (the law designated that both flags be flown) sparked a riot that killed twenty-one and wounded almost five hundred Panamanians. The incident affected him so profoundly, Blades believes, because, as he told Hamill, "until then the North Americans were always the good guys. We knew that from the movies, didn't we? They were the guys we'd seen kicking the Nazis, beating the bad guys. And all of a sudden, you had them on the other side, and they were shooting at you! It was a big disappointment." So he immersed himself in Latin music instead, listening to the creations of Joe Cuba, Ismael Rivera, and the Cortijo y Su Combo.
While Blades was serious about his musical ambitions, playing with various Latin bands during the late 1960s, he was also serious about his academic career. He entered the University of Panama to work on a law degree, and when offered a chance to replace one of the members of the Joe Cuba band, refused it to remain in school. Ironically, the following year the Panamanian military closed the university due to student unrest, and Blades went to New York City to work on his music. He cut an album with Pete Rodriguez, De Panama a Nueva York, for which he wrote all but one of the songs. Yet when the University of Panama was reopened, Blades returned to finish his degree.
Afterwards, Blades served for a short time as an attorney for the Bank of Panama and worked to rehabilitate prisoners, but in 1974 he returned to New York to further his musical career. Though he started off in the mailroom of New York's Fania Records, a company that specializes in Latin-American music, he quickly graduated to singing salsa with the Ray Barretto band. Then, in 1976, Blades became a songwriter and vocalist for the Willie Colon Combo, with whom he began to record the thoughtful songs that have made him famous. Metiendo Mano, his first effort with the Combo, featured one of Blades's most popular songs, "Pablo Pueblo," which sympathetically portrays a tired working man. Siembra, released in 1977, was distinguished by "Pedro Navaja," a Spanish adaptation of "Mack the Knife." Blades stirred up controversy in 1980 with the song "Tiburon" (Spanish for "shark"), which depicted interventionists as endlessly hungry sharks. The song was banned by Miami's most popular Latin-music radio station, and Blades was branded a Communist. He told Fred Bouchard in down beat, however, that the song was neutral: "My contra-intervention themes are not directed exclusively to the U.S. policy in Latin America, but include the Russians in Afghanistan and the British in Argentina."
In 1982 Blades left the Colon Combo to strike out on his own with Maestra Vida, an album "obviously inspired," according to Hamill, by the stories of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Soon afterwards, in an attempt to get his musical message to a wider audience, he signed with the mainstream record company Elektra. Blades's first release for them was the immensely popular Buscando America, which not only drew rave reviews from critics but sold more than three hundred thousand copies--"remarkable for a Latin record," testified Bill Barol in Newsweek. Buscando featured more of Blades's story songs, particularly "El Padre Antonio y el Monanguillo Andres," about an outspoken pacifist priest gunned down in his church with one of his altar boys, and "GDBD," which describes a secret policeman who has been assigned to make political arrests preparing for his day's work. In 1985 Blades released Escenas, which included a duet with popular singing star Linda Ronstadt, "Silencios." Though Blades has been including printouts with English translations of his songs since Buscando, he did not record in English until his 1988 album Nothing But the Truth.
But Blades is not merely a singer-songwriter. He drew praise from film critics in 1985 for his starring performance in Crossover Dreams, an independent motion picture about a Latin singer whose attempts to go mainstream alienate his family and friends, leaving him nothing to return to when his efforts fail. He has also acted in the film Waiting for Salazar, and provided musical scores for the documentaries When the Mountains Tremble and Caminos Verdes . Blades's goals are not limited to the entertainment fields, either. He writes political columns for a Panamanian newspaper and intends to return to Panama in the future and run for political office, perhaps even president. He took time off from the music business in 1985 to obtain a Master of Law degree from Harvard University, in part so that no one can say he is just an entertainer with no background for politics.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Ruben Blades's Career
Performed in various Latin groups in New York City and Panama beginning in 1969; solo performer and recording artist, 1982--. Appeared in films, including Crossover Dreams, The Last Fight, and Waiting for Salazar. Wrote scores for films, including When the Mountains Tremble and Caminos Verde, and a play, The Balcony. Author of political columns for Panamanian newspapers.
Ruben Blades's Awards
Named Best Ethnic/International Act and Best Latin Act by the New York Post, 1986.
- With the Willie Colon Combo; on Fania Records
- Metiendo Mano (includes "Pablo Pueblo"), 1976.
- Siembra (includes "Pedro Navaja"), 1977.
- Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos 1982.
- Solo LPs
- Maestra Vida Fania, c. 1982.
- Buscando America (includes "El Padre Antonio y el Monanguillo Andres," "Desapariciones," "GDBD," "Decisiones," and "Todos Vuelven"), Elektra, 1984.
- Escenas (includes "Silencios," "La Sorpresa," "Tierra Dura," "Cuentas del Alma," "Cancion del Final del Mundo," and "Muevete"), Elektra, 1985.
- Nothing But the Truth Elektra, 1988.
- Also recorded, with Pete Rodriguez, De Panama a Nueva York c. 1969.
September 3, 2003: Blades won a Latin Grammy Award for best contemporary tropical album for Mundo. Source: "4th Annual Latin Grammy Awards," latingrammy.aol.com/awards/winners.html, September 4, 2003.
Summer 2004: Blades was named minister of tourism for Panama. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, August 16, 2004.
February 13, 2005: Blades won the Grammy Award for best salsa/merengue album for Across 110th Street, with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.
- down beat, January, 1986.
- Newsweek, September 9, 1985.
- New York, August 19, 1985.
- People, August 13, 1984.
- Time, July 11, 1988.