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Rubén Blades: Salsa Music Icon y Mas!

by YaYa Vargas

Ruben Blades, at 18th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards after winning for Best Salsa Album

A master juggler of so many talents, Rubén Blades is a Panamanian singer, songwriter, composer, actor, activist, and politician; seamlessly agile in so many skills. He is one of the most successful and influential Salsa musicians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

On July 16, 1948 in Panama City, Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna was born, into a musically inclined family. His father, Rubén Darío Blades, Sr., who was born in Colombia but raised in Panama, was a police detective, a percussionist, an athlete, and a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in Washington, D.C.. Blades’ mother, Anoland Díaz (real surname Bellido de Luna), was a Cuban-born musician and actress on radio soap operas.

Album Cover for Willie Colon Presents Ruben Blades: Metiendo Mano

A versatile story teller, Blades crafts words set to the melody of Afro-Cuban, salsa, and Latin jazz rhythms. Blades marries the lyrical sophistication of Central American nueva canción and Cuban nueva trova as well as experimental tempos and politically inspired Son Cubano salsa to his music, creating “thinking persons’ (Salsa) dance music”.

Shortly after graduating college, Blades lived in Miami, Florida, where he stayed with his exiled parents, before moving to New York City. He began his career in New York writing songs while working in the mailroom at Fania Records in the 1970’s.

 

Patiently waiting and developing himself for the right moment, he got to rub elbows with salseros Ray Barretto and Larry Harlow. 

Shortly after, he started collaborating with trombonist and bandleader Willie Colón, teaming up to release eight Salsa albums together over time, in addition to participating in albums by plena singer Mon Rivera as well as the Fania All Stars.

He has written a plethora of hit songs for himself and other artists, including “El Cantante“, which became Héctor Lavoe‘s signature hit, and “Pedro Navaja“.

Blades’ songs are considered musical mini novels, each one telling an elaborate story, from the track’s protagonist falling on hard times as in “Pablo Pueblo,” his first notable hit, or socially relevant songs like “Plástico,” where he describes a superficial couple influenced by the pressures of society to be “the example of perfection”.

Throughout his musical career Blades has won eight Latin Grammy Awards, and nine out of seventeen Grammy Award nominations.

Rúben Blades

He wrote and performed several songs with the Fania All Stars, up until he left the record label in 1984, although Fania continued to release recordings compiled from their archives over the years. 

Blades then assembled his own band Seis del Solar (or Son del Solar) and began touring and recording with them. 

The bands first of many albums was the Grammy Award winning Escenas, which included a duet with Linda Ronstadt (1985), followed by the album Agua de Luna, based on the short stories of famed writer Gabriel García Márquez, in 1987. The next year he released the English-language collaboration Nothing But the Truth with rock artists Sting, Elvis Costello, and Lou Reed, echoing such social issues as the Iran-Contra affair and the AIDS crisis happening at the time. He then flipped it back to traditional salsa with another Grammy Award winning album, Antecedente, again with Seis del Solar.

Versatility is part of what has always made Rubén Blades a sought after icon in Latin music. Another great example is his collaboration with Calle 13 for their socially conscious La Perla (2008), where Blades flexes his spoken word/ Rap skills.

In addition to being a triumphant musician, Blades is also a successful actor. His first movie role came in 1982, as the lead in The Last Fight, portraying a singer-turned-boxer vying for a championship against a fighter who was played by real-life world-champion boxer Salvador Sánchez. He has maintained this career over the years, with several-year breaks in between to focus on music and other endeavors. 

He has had more prominent roles in several other films, like Crossover Dreams (1985) in which he co- wrote and stars in, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Predator 2 (1992), Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), and The Counselor (2013). In addition, he has three Emmy Award nominations for his performances in The Josephine Baker Story (1991), Crazy from the Heart (1992) The Maldonado Miracle (2003). Blades’ most recent work is a recurring role as Daniel Salazar, and on television shows like Criminal Minds, and most recently on the AMC series Fear the Walking Dead.

Blades also composed the musical score for the film Q & A (1990), and headed the cast of singer/songwriter Paul Simon‘s first Broadway musical, The Capeman.

Rubén Blades as Daniel Salazar on Fear The Walking Dead Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC

Also a scholar, Blades has earned degrees in political science and law at the Universidad Nacional de Panamá and performed legal work at the Bank of Panama as a law student before moving to New York in 1974. Furthermore, in 1985, at the height of his budding popularity, Blades took a break from his musical career to earn a master’s degree in international law from Harvard University, and in 2005 received an honorary degree from the Berklee College of Music.

 

During the 1990s, he acted in films and continued to make records with Seis/Son del Solar, while simultaneously pursuing a career in politics. In 1994, among Blades’ many ambitions, he mounted an unsuccessful Panamanian presidential run as founder of the Movimiento Papa Egoró (Mother Earth) party.

Defeat did not put a dent in his admiration, however, and Blades continued to record as well as act. Amongst many releases, his album Tiempos (1999) contains commentary on poverty and governmental corruption in Latin America, and the musically diverse Mundo (2002) won him the first of numerous Latin Grammy Awards. In 2003 Blades released Una Década, a compilation spanning 10 years of his career.

Ruben Blades playing maracas adorned with Panamanian flag

Although he did not win the election, he is still very well respected and praised in his homeland. In 2004, Blades was appointed minister of tourism by Panamanian president Martín Torrijos for a five-year term. While Blades devoted much of his time to that position, he was still involved with music. He was a guest vocalist on Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s album Across 110th Street (2004), and in 2005 was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) with its Founders Award for lifetime achievement.

Socially conscious music seems to have always been the foundation for his life purpose. As an icon in Panama and much adored throughout Latin America and Spain, his carreers span over 50+ years. He has been in forty- nine film and television productions, and has composed, performed and/ or guest appeared in over thirty- five albums simultaneously, and counting. As an entertainer, politician and activist, where will we see Rubén Blades next? 

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