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Rubén Blades in concert, Connecticut, 2005
Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna
July 16, 1948 (1948-07-16) (age 63)
Panama City, Panama
salsa, latin Jazz, Latin Pop, world music
actor, singer, songwriter
Fania Records, Elektra, Sony, Columbia
Willie Colón, Fania All Stars
Rubén Blades' website
Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna (
born July 16, 1948) is a Panamaniansalsa singer, songwriter, lawyer, actor, Latin jazz musician, and politician, performing musically most often in the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz genres. As songwriter, Blades brought the lyrical sophistication of Central American nueva canción and Cubannueva trova as well as experimental tempos and political inspired Nuyorican salsa to his music, creating thinking persons' (salsa) dance music. Blades has composed dozens of musical hits, the most famous of which is "Pedro Navaja," a song about a neighborhood thug who appears to die during a robbery (his song "Sorpresas" continues the story), inspired by "Mack the Knife." He also composed and sings what many Panamanians consider their second national anthem. The song is titled "Patria" (Fatherland).He is an icon in Panama and is much admired throughout Latin America, and managed to attract 18% of the vote in his failed attempt to win the Panamanian presidency in 1994. In September 2004, he was appointed minister of tourism by Panamanian president Martín Torrijos for a five-year term. He holds a law degree from the University of Panama and a master's in international law from Harvard University. He is married to singer Luba Mason.
Blades was born in Panama City, Panama, the son of Anoland Diaz (Diaz was his mother's artistic surname, not her real name, which was Bellido de Luna), a Cuban pianist, singer, and actress, and Ruben Dario Blades, Sr., a gifted athlete, percussionist and later a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in Washington, D.C. His mother's great-uncle Juan Bellido de Luna was active in the Cuban revolutionary movement against Spain and was later a writer and publisher in New York. Blades's paternal grandfather, Reuben Blades, was an English-speaking native of St. Lucia who came to Panama as an accountant. His family is not quite sure how the Blades family ended up in St. Lucia, but when his grandfather relocated to Panama, he lived in the PanamanianBocas del Toro Province. Ruben Blades thought until recently that his grandfather had come to Panama to work on the Panama Canal, as he tells in the song "West Indian Man" on the album Amor y Control ("That's where the Blades comes from") (1992). He explains the source and the pronunciation (/ˈbleɪdz/) of his family surname, which is of English origin, in his web show Show De Ruben Blades (SDRB) episode #18 on his website close to seven minutes into the recording.
In Blades' early days, he was a vocalist in Los Salvajes del Ritmo with fellow university students including Antonio Jose Guzman, and also a songwriter and guest singer with a professional Latin music conjunto; Bush y sus Magníficos. His strongest influence of the day was the Joe Cuba sextet and Cheo Feliciano, whose singing style he copied to the point of imitating his voice tone and vocal range.
Blades earned degrees in political science and law at the Universidad Nacional de Panama and performed legal work at the Bank of Panama as a law student. Upon his graduation in 1974, Blades moved to the United States, staying temporarily with his exiled parents in Miami, Florida before moving to New York City. Perhaps his first profesional "gig" as singer and composer was with Pete Rodriguez La Magnifica Orchestra, under the musical direction of trumpetist Tony Pabon, including song hits such as "Descarga Caliente" and "De Panama a NewYork", recorded on Alegre records label around 1970 in New York City. Blades began his formal musical career in New York writing songs while working in the mailroom at Fania Records, perceived as a talented songwriter who still had to develop a singing style of his own. The mailroom job was a good opportunity to stay close to the company until the right opportunity came along. Soon Blades was working with salseros Ray Barretto and Larry Harlow. Shortly thereafter, Blades started collaborating with trombonist and bandleader Willie Colón, and they recorded several albums together and participated in albums by plena singer Mon Rivera and the Fania All Stars.
Blades' first notable hit was a song on the 1977 album Metiendo Mano that he had composed in 1968: "Pablo Pueblo," a meditation about a working-class father who returns to his home after a long day at work. The song later became his unofficial campaign song when he ran for president of Panama. The Colón and Blades recording on the same album of Tite Curet Alonso's composition, "Plantación Adentro," which dealt with the brutal treatment of Indian natives in Latin America's colonial times, was an enormous hit in various Caribbean countries. He wrote and performed several songs with the Fania All Stars and as a guest on other artists' releases, including the hits "Paula C," written about a girlfriend at the time; "Juan Pachanga," about a party animal who buries his pain for a lost love in dance and drink; and "Sin Tu Cariño," a love song, featuring a bomba break. The latter two songs feature piano solos by Papo Lucca.
In 1978, Blades wrote the song "El Cantante"; Colón convinced him to give the song to Colón's former musical partner, Héctor Lavoe, to record, since Lavoe's nickname was already "El Cantante de los Cantantes" ("the singer of singers"). Lavoe recorded it that same year, and it became both a big hit and Lavoe's signature song; a biographical film, El Cantante from Lavoe took the same title. (The film El Cantante told a fictionalized version of this story, in which Blades tells Lavoe he wrote the song for him.)
The Colón and Blades album Siembra (1978) became the best-selling salsa record in history. It has sold over 25 million copies, and almost all of its songs were hits at one time or another in various Latin American countries.,
Blades became dissatisfied with Fania and tried to terminate his contract, but was legally obliged to record several more albums. Maestra Vida and its follow-up Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos are highlights. In 1984, Blades signed with Elektra and assembled a top-notch band (known variously as Seis Del Solar or Son Del Solar) and recorded a number of albums with them including the Grammy Award-winning albums Escenas and Antecedente. Fania continued to release recordings compiled from their archives for some years afterwards.
In 1982, Blades got his first acting role in The Last Fight (film), portraying a singer-turned-boxer vying for a championship against a fighter who was played by real-life world-champion boxer Salvador Sánchez. In 1984, he released Buscando América, and in 1985, Blades gained widespread recognition as co-writer and star of the independent film Crossover Dreams as a New York salsa singer willing to do anything to break into the mainstream. Blades also began his career in films scoring music for soundtracks. Also in 1985, he earned a master's degree in international law from Harvard Law School. He was also the subject of Robert Mugge's documentary The Return of Ruben Blades, which debuted at that year's Denver Film Festival.
After winning his first Grammy Award for Escenas in 1986, he recorded 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 the same year as the more traditionally salsa Antecedente, another Grammy Award winner.
The English-language album received disappointing reviews, but he answered his critics, "I do not believe in the notion that one is condemned to do something because he looks in a certain way or speaks a certain language. To me, music is a universal thing, and I have always been interested in the directions offered me by music in English, directions I could not find, concretely in terms of construction, with the Afro-Cuban rhythms I'd always worked with. I also wanted to leave testimony of the meeting of urban tropical music with rock 'n roll".
Blades had also contributed guest vocals in English to "Bitter Fruit" a song on the 1984 album Freedom - No Compromise by Little Steven.
Minister of Tourism of Panama
16 July 1948 (1948-07-16) (age 63)
Rubén Blades' website
During the 1990s, he acted in films and continued to make records with Seis/Son del Solar. In 1994 he mounted his unsuccessful presidential bid, founding the party Movimiento Papa Egoró. The album that followed this experience was La Rosa de los Vientos with songs by other Panamanian songwriters, using all Panamanian musicians.
In 1996, Blades along with Son Miserables performed "No Te Miento (I Don't Lie )" for the AIDS benefit album Silencio=Muerte: Red Hot + Latin produced by the Red Hot Organization.
In 1997, Blades headed the cast of singer/songwriter Paul Simon's first Broadway musical, The Capeman, based on a true story about a violent youth who becomes a poet in prison, which also starred Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario.
His many film appearances include The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), The Two Jakes (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Color of Night (1994), and Devil's Own (1997). In 1999, he played Mexican artist Diego Rivera in Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. In the 2003 film Once Upon a Time in Mexico, starring Johnny Depp, Antonio Banderas, and Willem Dafoe, he played the role of a retired FBI agent.
Blades' 1999 album Tiempos, which he recorded with musicians from the Costa Rican groups Editus and Sexteto de Jazz Latino, represented a break from his salsa past and a further rejection of commercial trends in Latin music. Ironically, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Pop Album. Even more eclectic was the 2002 album Mundo with the 11-member Editus Ensemble and bagpiper Eric Rigler, which incorporated instruments from around the world. The same year, he guested on world music artist Derek Trucks' album, Joyful Noise.
In 2003 he followed the World Music Grammy and Latin Grammy winner Mundo with a web site free-download project. As he said in 2005 when receiving the ASCAP Founders Award about his non-commercial choices, "That's the way I think."
In 2004, he put his artistic careers on hold when he began serving a five-year appointment as Panama's minister of tourism. Beginning in June 2007, however, Blades turned some of his attention back to his artistic career, presenting an "online tv show" titled Show de Ruben Blades (SDRB) on his website.
During the summer of 2008 he took a leave of absence for a mini-tour in Europe, backed by the Costa Rican band Son de Tikizia. When his government service was completed in June 2009, he reunited the members of Seis del Solar for the 25th anniversary of Buscando America in an ambitious tour of the Americas.