Blades, Ruben (1948—)

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Blades, Ruben (1948—)

Musician, actor, and social activist Ruben Blades grew up in Panama and grew to international fame in the United States, becoming in the process a perfect example of the multiculturalism of the Americas. Accepting as correct both the Spanish and English pronunciations of his last name, Blades likewise accepts the different facets of himself and demands no less of the greater culture that surrounds him. Overcoming enormous odds, Blades managed to juggle simultaneous careers as a lawyer, a salsa musician, a Hollywood actor, and finally a presidential candidate while maintaining his principles of social justice and pan-culturalism.

Blades was born in Panama City into a musical family; his father, a police detective, played bongos, and his Cuban-born mother sang and played piano. Along with the Afro-Cuban rhythms he grew up with, Blades was heavily influenced by the rock music of the Beatles, Frankie Lyman, and others. After studying law at the University of Panama ("to please my parents"), he began playing music with a band. In 1974, disenchanted with the political oppression of the military dictatorship in Panama and seeking new horizons in his music career, Blades left his native land and went to New York City.

He arrived in New York with only one hundred dollars in his pocket, but it wasn't long before he had found a job in a band playing salsa music. Salsa, a pan-American music which had been formed when the music of Cuban immigrants married American jazz, was just the kind of flexible Latin sound to absorb the rock and rhythm and blues influences that Blades loved. By the late 1970s, he was recording with salsa musician Willie Colon, and together they produced an album appropriately named Siembre (Seed), which became one of the seminal works of salsa music.

Blades also comes by his political activism naturally; his grandmother worked for women's rights in Panama in the 1940s and 1950s. Though Blades loved music, he never let it become an escape; rather he used it in his attempt to change the world, writing more than one hundred fifty songs, most of them political. He became one of the leading creators of the Nuova Cancion (New Song) movement, a Latin music movement that combined political message with poetic imagery and Latin rhythms. His songs, while embraced by those on the left, were often controversial in more conservative circles. His 1980 song "Tiberon" (Shark) about the intervention and imperialism of the superpowers, was banned on radio stations in Miami, and Blades received death threats when he performed there.

After taking a year off to earn a master's degree in international law from Harvard Law School, Blades moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1986. He starred in the low budget film Crossover Dreams (1985) about a young Latin American man trying to succeed as a musician in the United States. Blades proved to be a talented actor and continues to appear in major films, some, like Robert Redford's The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), with social significance and some, like Fatal Beauty (1987) with Whoopi Goldberg, pure Hollywood.

Perhaps Blades's most surprising role began when he returned to Panama in 1992. As the country was struggling to recover from the repressive politics of Manuel Noriega and invasion by the United States, Blades helped in the formation of a new populist political party to combat the dominant corporation-driven politics of Panama. The party, Papa Egoro (Mother Earth in the indigenous language), eventually asked Blades to be its candidate for president. Blades accepted reluctantly but ran enthusiastically, writing his own campaign song and encouraging his constituents to believe that change was possible. "I'm going to walk with the people who are the subjects of my songs," he said, "And I'm going to try to change their lives." One significant change he suggested was a requirement that a percentage of the corporate money that passed through Panama be invested back into the infrastructure of the country to benefit ordinary citizens. Blades lost his bid for the presidency, partly because of lack of campaign funds and a political machine, and partly because he had not lived in Panama for many years and was not taken seriously as a candidate by some voters. However, he came in third out of seven candidates, which many saw as a hopeful sign of a growing populist movement.

Ruben Blades's life and career is an eclectic jumble of impossible feats and improbable juxtapositions. In the superficial world of commercial music and Hollywood film he has succeeded without neutralizing his politics. In the endless freeway that is Los Angeles he has never learned to drive or owned a car ("If I need something, it's only an hour-and-a-half walk to town"). His many releases include an album with Anglo singers singing with him in Spanish, an English album with rock rebels Lou Reed and Elvis Costello, and an album of contemporary Panamanian singers. Blades is proudly pan-American and wants to inspire all Americans to explore our connections. "I will always be viewed with suspicion by some, though not by all," he admits, "because I move against the current."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Batstone, David. "Panama's Big Chance to Escape the Past: Politics, Promises Take Center Stage as Election Draws Near." National Catholic Reporter. Vol. 30, No. 27, May 6, 1994, 8.

Blades, Ruben. Yo, Ruben Blades: Confesiones de un Relator de Barrio. Panama City, Medellin, Ediciones Salsa y Cultura, 1997.

Cruz, Barbara. Ruben Blades: Salsa Singer and Social Activist. Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow Publishing, 1997.

Marton, Betty A. Ruben Blades. New York, Chelsea House, 1992.