Rubén Blades did not grow up in the Bronx, El Barrio, or even in Puerto Rico. He was born in Panama and by the time he arrived in New York in 1974 he was already a lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School. But music was in his blood. His mother Anoland Bellido de Luna was born in Cuba and sang and played the piano. His father Rubén Blades Sr. was born in Colombia and played percussion. So Rubén gave up the law to try to become a singer and songwriter, starting with a job in the mailroom at Fania Records.
Blades brought a new lyrical sophistication to Salsa in a partnership with Willie Colón. But first he had to overcome the resistance of Colón and other New York salseros who regarded his privileged background with suspicion. “Rubén is a guy raised by his mom and dad and he went to the university and he decided to come to New York and dabble in the ghettos and listen to the music. So he understood everything intellectually. I grew up with holes in my shoes,” says Colón.
But Colón and Jerry Masucci, co-founder of Fania Records, also understood his genius and Blades’ potential to expand the appeal of Salsa. “Rubén had a talent for putting together words, for crafting the words in such a way that he was able to just paint a picture so that you could hear, and smell and see all of the things within the lyric,” says Colón. Blades’ songwriting provided brilliant opporunities for Colón’s arrangements, and the two combined to create an album that has been called the Sergeant Pepper of Salsa, Siembra.
One of Siembra’s tracks, “Pedro Navaja” – based on the song Mack the Knife and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenney Opera - tells the story of a small-time gangster shot by a prostitute in the dark Barrio night. It became the most popular Salsa song ever. With “Pedro Navaja,” Salsa began to move out of El Barrio into the universities, and beyond the U.S. into Latin America. “Pedro Navaja” demonstrated the enormous influence Salsa could have as a vehicle for social commentary.
“The bully got bullied,” said Blades, “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.”
For Fania and for Salsa, Siembra was a qualitative leap. Salsa albums to that point sold in the tens of thousands. Siembra sold 500,000 albums in Caracas, Venezuela alone. Over the years, Siembra has sold over 25 million copies, setting a record for best-selling album in the history of Salsa.
Blades became an icon, someone whose genius stood for justice at all levels of society. He continued working for Fania for some time, composing the megahit, “El Cantante,” a song made famous by Héctor Lavoe. Eventually he left Fania to form his own band Seis del Solar.
Blades’ success continued unabated. He has won eight Grammy Awards and five Latin Grammys. In 1983, he began to act. He has had prominent roles in films such as Crossover Dreams (1985), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), Predator 2 (1992), Color of Night (1994), Safe House (2012), The Counselor (2013) and Hands of Stone (2016).
He is much admired throughout Latin America and Spain, 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. Blades continues to record and tour.