Musician Ruben Blades Blends Activism with Afro-Cuban Rhythm

February 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Panamanian salsa musician and actor Ruben Blades has been known to blend social issues like poverty and corruption into his music, but he also mixes art and advocacy in his work as a lawyer and public official. Jeffrey Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a musical man of many turns.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: A recent concert in Panama featuring local legend and international salsa star Ruben Blades.

This was a special performance, a return to music for Blades, after spending five years as a cabinet minister, an unusual career move for any musician, but not for this songwriter, who’s always brought the problems of his part of the world, poverty, corruption, underdevelopment, into his music.

RUBEN BLADES, musician: I think that, through music, you can help to make these issues not go away, and present them in a nonpolitical, partisan way, and just humanistic way, that will make people pay attention to the issue, and perhaps understand it better.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 61, Blades is now back living in New York with his wife, Luba Mason, a jazz singer. At the famous Blue Note Club recently, he told me that, growing up in Panama, music had been all around.

RUBEN BLADES: I heard everything. In Panama — this is important. Panama was the first country where you saw the Beatles after “The Ed Sullivan Show.”


RUBEN BLADES: Yes, because we had the North American Army in Panama at the time in the Canal Zone area, so there was a Southern Command network, and Ed Sullivan’s show was passed on a week after it was shown here. So, we saw the Beatles.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a young man in Panama, Blades got degrees in political science and law. Much later, he got a master’s in international law from Harvard.

He had also started performing the Latin American dance music known as salsa. And when his family left Panama in the early ’70s, amid political turmoil, Blades made his way to New York, where the salsa scene was exploding. Ground zero was the recording label Fania Records.

RUBEN BLADES: Fania records was the big — it was the Motown, was recording mecca of any Latin salsa fan. So, I called to see if they would record me, and they said no. And then I almost — I was hanging up the phone, and I said, do you have anything else? And they said, what do you mean? Anything to work in. And he says, oh, there’s a job in the mailroom. And I said, what does that mean? What do I have to do?

And then they explained to me what it was and it was — and how much it paid, $125 a week.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you were the lawyer in the mailroom wanting…


JEFFREY BROWN: … but wanting to … The nut in the mailroom, but wanting to do music.

RUBEN BLADES: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: The rest, as they say, is recording history. Blades soon got his chance and became a major star, with a string of international hits, including “Pedro Navaja,” his version of “Mack the Knife,” about a smalltime criminal and life in the slums.

Blades was also celebrated as a lyricist and for broadening what was primarily dance music.

RUBEN BLADES: I noticed that most of the themes had to do with very simple scenarios. And I thought, you know…

JEFFREY BROWN: Like most popular music.

RUBEN BLADES: Right, love, rejection, the friend that betrayed me.

And I started writing about social issues, all kinds of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you want there to be some sort of social consciousness, as well as the music.

RUBEN BLADES: I want discussion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Discussion.

RUBEN BLADES: I want subversion. I want to make people think about stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blades also began acting. He appeared in more than 30 films, features like “All the Pretty Horses,” and some, like “The Milagro Beanfield War,” that took on social topics.

RUBEN BLADES: Why would he want to do something like that for?

JEFFREY BROWN: In the ’90s, he turned to politics more directly, forming a party and running for president in Panama. He lost, but the public service bug stuck. And, in 2004, Blades joined the government as minister of tourism, an important economic post in Panama.

RUBEN BLADES: It’s a way to really, not through songs, but to go through the trenches and try to make — change things politically.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you learn from that experience?

RUBEN BLADES: I learned it works. Actually…


RUBEN BLADES: Absolutely. You know, most people who through bureaucracy, it’s “burrocracy.” Burro. Burro.




RUBEN BLADES: Two R’s, a burrocracy, burrocracy.

It creates a lot of disappointments, especially if you come form the private sector into the public sector. We made things happen and created a national law on tourism. We created a national program, a national plan, that took into consideration what to do not to hurt the environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you came away optimistic?

RUBEN BLADES: Absolutely, because the other thing is that, from the outside, you know, we criticize and we always have an opinion. I mean, you throw a stick out and you hit an expert on politics.

But I felt I got to go in there and earn the right to carp and criticize. And I came out thinking, wow, this can work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Musician, actor, lawyer, all that, is it a restless mind? What is it? Restless soul, or…

RUBEN BLADES: I thought that because…

JEFFREY BROWN: … can’t hold a job? I mean, what is it?

RUBEN BLADES: Well, that has been said.

I think it has to do with my grandmother. I really — that was like my main example. You know, my grandmother was a vegetarian in the ’30s. This lady practiced yoga in the ’50s.


RUBEN BLADES: I mean, she talked to me about cubism when I was about 7 years old. You know, so, I grew up not thinking that anything was impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Blades’ recent recordings, the sound is acoustic, more stripped-down from the orchestration of the past, but, thematically, they pick up where he left off. His latest C.D. is called “Songs of Underdevelopment.”

RUBEN BLADES: Because you need to continue focusing. We — our society is not as just as it should be. We still are not giving everyone the same opportunities. So, we still have to continue to try to fight for a better, more just society. So, the songs continue to be necessary, now and forever, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ruben Blades, thanks — thanks for talking to us.

RUBEN BLADES: Thank you. I admire your show.