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The Salsa Revolution

Chapter 8: Politics, Society & Salsa: Rubén Blades & Willie Colón

[STILL: Ruben Blades]

The once awestruck Panamanian musician, Ruben Blades, had moved to New York in 1974, leaving behind a career as an attorney.

He'd called Fania hoping to record for the label but been turned down flat.

RUBEN BLADES, SINGER & COMPOSER: Before I hung up I said is there anything else you have there, any kind of job available? The person said "We have an opening in the mailroom." "And how much does it pay?" "$125 a week." "I said I'll take it" But everybody thought I was crazy I think in way because I was lawyer, an attorney, and I'm here, working in a mailroom. You know?

[FOOTAGE: Fania office door]

Blades' strategy paid off. In 1977, in partnership with Willie Colon, he recorded his first Fania album, introducing a new lyrical sophistication to Salsa.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben Blades recording for Fania in 1978]

The lament of the scarecrow
You can hear it at night
The sadness of every prisoner
Is not having his freedom

Blades provided the songs, with Colon producing the recordings.

BLADES: (VO) Willie Colon has this ability to connect and reconcile (OC) the artistic with the commercial. He knows how to do that instinctively, (VO) very intuitive person.

[FOOTAGE: Willie Colon and Band recording with Ruben Blades 1978]

W. COLON: (VO) Ruben had a talent (OC) for putting together words, for crafting the words in such a way that he was able to just paint a picture of that you could hear, and smell and see all of the things within the lyric.

BLADES: (Archive Interview) (OC) When I got to New York for instance, I wrote this song...

[SINGS: "Apurate maquinista, quede hace tiempo esperando el numero seis, el numero seis, el numero seis"]

BLADES: (Archive Interview) (OC) What is that song about? It's a subway, (sings) "Hurry up, damn machine, I've been here for hours and still I cannot see the Number Six subway, Number Six" (VO) And people still sing it today. Why? Because today you still have people waiting for the Number Six train saying "Where the hell is this train?"

[FOOTAGE: New York subway trains]
[MUSIC: Bobby Rodriguez singing 'El Numero Seis']

El Numero Seis
Recorded by Bobby Rodriguez

IZZY SANABRIA, EMCEE & DESIGNER: Then, he starts writing lyrics that have political and social content and he deeply penetrates South America.

[FOOTAGE: Poor riverside shanty towns in Latin America, women and children]

BLADES: (VO) When I started writing songs about things that happened to people (OC) in the city, then people who were not dancers, and people who were not from the Barrio itself, or that corner specifically, then began to adapt the songs as their own. (VO) It's not just to dance to. This is more important, this can go beyond dictatorships, beyond censorships, beyond ignorance...It could also be a way of solidarity. It's not just dancing.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben on stage]

[FOOTAGE: Archive of Willie Colon running on stage with Puerto Rican flag]

Blades' songwriting and Colon's production combined to create an album that has been called the 'Sgt. Pepper of Salsa,' 'SIEMBRA.'

BLADES: (VO) If an album sold ten thousand (OC) copies, it was, you know... If it sold fourty-thousand, which was what Willie was doing at the time, it was whoa. And if it sold 100,000 it was like unbelievably huge success.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben and Willie singing 'Pedro Navaja']

BLADES: (VO) When we sold (OC) 500,000 copies of 'Siembra' in Caracas, Venezuela alone, that was like an earthquake.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben and Willie singing Pedro Navaja]

W. COLON: (VO) And it just came at the right moment. (OC) There was problems in Panama, there was problems in the universities in Puerto Rico, all of these political problems and here comes 'Siembra' — boom.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben Blades archive: Do you know ' Mack the Knife?' and starts to sing]

The inspiration for the biggest hit on the album came from an unlikely source.

BLADES: (Archive interview) I heard that song when I was like, eight or nine years of age. Bobby Darin recorded 'Mack the Knife.' I remember I used to, in parties, I used to sing it, you know, mimic and they would give me a quarter or something. (VO) It's a haunting melody.

[FOOTAGE: Ruben Blades sings 'Pedro Navaja']

Based on Mack the Knife, 'Pedro Navaja' told the story of a Barrio hoodlum, who stabs a woman on the street, but is shot by her as she dies.

And as Pedro Navaja fell to the curb,
He saw the dying woman with the gun,
And heard her say:
I thought, today is not my day.
I'm on a bad streak
But Pedro Navaja
You're worse, you're worthless."

BLADES: The Bully got bullied. And that was happening in all levels of society: governments were treating people badly, authorities were not doing what they were supposed to do and people saw in that example, a way of getting even. In the midst of the attack, it's like — I respond in kind.

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