Musician-actor-activist Rubén Blades

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The 10-time Grammy winner, Harvard law school grad and former presidential candidate in Panama reflects on his varied career and talks about his new CD, “Tangos.”

A singer, songwriter, actor, lawyer and activist, Rubén Blades' work has crossed geopolitical borders and cultures. As a musician, he's won 10 Grammys, recorded landmark albums, collaborated with artists in a variety of music genres, including hip-hop, and composed dozens of hit songs. As an actor, he's received Emmy, Independent Spirit and ALMA nominations for his performances on the big and small screen. In the political realm, he formed a political party and ran for president of his native Panama—he holds law degrees from the University of Panama and Harvard Law School—and served as Panama's minister of tourism. Blades is currently on tour and is out with a new CD, "Tangos."


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Rubén Blades. The musician, songwriter, actor, activist and occasional politician has won 12 Grammy awards, been nominated for three Emmys, has a law degree from Harvard, served as Minister of Tourism for his native Panama – a prestigious position, of course – and ran for the presidency of that country back in 1994 winning 18% of the vote.

He remains committed to both his activism and his artistry and he has a new CD out called “Tangos.”

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Rubén Blades coming up right now.

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Tavis: There are some artists who refuse to stay in any one silo and I think we’re all the better for it. Rubén Blades is one of those artists. As a musician, he’s won 12 Grammys. As an actor, performed in more than 30 movies and dozens of TV shows earning multiple acting nominations.

He remains, of course, politically engaged speaking out on the issues of the day, including poverty, corruption and under-development. He’s currently on tour and his latest CD is called “Tangos.” We’ll start our conversation first with a look at Rubén Blades singing “Pedro Navaja” from “Tangos.”


Tavis: I got the CD. I thought it was a misprint [laugh]. I said, “Tangos?” Rubén is doing tangos?

Rubén Blades: Yeah. We thought about it, Carlos Franzetti and I – Carlos is the arranger and producer – about doing this for about 39 years, the first time we spoke about it, and it had to do with the lyrics basically.

I was very curious about how the lyrics would be affected by the tango atmosphere and instrumentation. What would happen to the lyric? I think that was the main source of the interest for me. How would the lyric be affected by the atmosphere that tango provided?

Tavis: Why was that such a concern for you?

Blades: Because I’m always stressing the importance of the written word. And some people feel, okay, if you do salsa music which is action-oriented, whatever you do in salsa is not gonna work in any other genre because it’s salsa. And if you bring this idea a little further, then that means that if you’re born in a neighborhood, then you cannot escape whatever problems the neighborhood may have.

I mean, it may be too extreme, but I really felt that there’s more to the lyric than what was being expressed through the Afro-Cuban format and I wanted to know what effect would that have not just in terms of how people would understand and relate to the lyric, but how would I relate to it myself as a singer?

Tavis: You know, I don’t want to demonize or cast aspersion on any other artist, but there are some artists for whom lyrical content is supreme. There are others who are into the beat, into the groove, some into the melody, and all these things are important. Let me just ask one more question then about this lyric. How and why did the lyric become so important to you?

Blades: Because I believe part of the problems that we have today is that we have lost the skills to communicate things. And I really think that music itself, being one of the greatest possible vehicles for mass communication, should be probed to its extremes, to see how effective it can actually become, which is one of the reasons why I became also interested in presenting political points of view. And I say political only because that’s what they ultimately are being identified as.

They were just points of view about what was going on in the city, so I was very, very, very much – with “Tangos,” I was very much interested with the emotional aspect of the lyric, it’s power. Would the lyric become more understandable, more genuine, more truthful, more reflexive?

Tavis: So before I move on then, let me buttonhole this thing and pin this down. So you take your salsa stuff, you transform it into tango…

Blades: Right. Carlos Franzetti did this at the time.

Tavis: You and Carlos did this together. When you take your salsa stuff, you transform it into tango, the project is out, “Tangos.” What did you learn? What have you discovered about what happens to the lyric when you flip it?

Blades: First of all, I think that all the people who are familiar with the songs that were originally recorded as salsa will discover the songs again and will discover within the song elements that they had not seen before. Again, salsa action, tango atmosphere reflection. So they are going to find elements of the song that perhaps they didn’t even consider existed before.

And as for me as a singer, the greatest discovery that I think one can make, to discover that I can still be surprised and moved by something that I thought I knew and, again, take this to family relationships, take this to friends.

I mean, for one person to understand that what you thought you knew still held areas that were unknown to you, that you can still be moved by that which you thought defined and done with. I mean, apply that to relationships between a man and a woman, a man and his family, a man and his friends, a man and his community. So I was moved to the core.

Tavis: You have done so much good work over the years musically.

Blades: Thank you.

Tavis: We’ll come to the other parts of your renaissance personality in a moment here. You’ve done so much brilliant work, Rubén, over the years musically. How do you go about choosing which tracks out of your corpus that you’re going to try to turn into tango?

Blades: I tried to – that’s a good question. I actually went for songs that I was very curious about like “Juana Mayo.” It’s a song about a prostitute that is trying to find love, “Paula C” which was my own experience of my first adult relationship with a woman, and those two songs are – “Pablo Pueblo” which was one of the first songs that I ever wrote when I was still in first year of university law in Panama.

The lyrics of those three songs, I thought I’m really curious to see what happens with them in this atmosphere with this treatment. And the other ones were songs that I thought were not going to perhaps work, but I wanted to see what would happen.

And then it’s interesting because I wasn’t choosing just in terms of thinking what people are gonna want to hear. It was more like, well, this is probably not gonna work, but let me see how it works. It was probably not a very wise decision [laugh], but it was an honest decision.

And “Adan Garcia,” that song, if you listen to it, the tango version of it, Carlos and I wanted to demonstrate the composition of a man, of his world internally. It’s a song about the last 24 hours in the day of a man who’s totally overwhelmed by economic problems and what he does during the whole day and what ends up happening to him and how his family reacts to what happens to him.

So the band kept playing. I mean, we were recording with the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra in the Czech Republic. And Carlos, through an interpreter, told the people who were very excellent musicians, if you play and you think you’re doing it wrong, then you’re doing it right [laugh]. The Czechs, they were like…who are these nuts that we have here? Oh, they’re from America. Oh, they’re from Latin America. Oh, okay.

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Blades: But that was like what Carlos said, that’s basically the way I felt with those other songs. And another song was like, I mean, “Ligia Elena,” it was just let’s see how it sounds. They might not work, but let’s see how it works.

Tavis: Your answer to this question now, Rubén, leads me to ask a broader question about your life and your life’s task, which is what has made you such a curious person?

I mentioned a moment ago that you’re a renaissance man of sorts and, again, we’ll comet to the some of the stuff that I mentioned at the top of the conversation that you’ve done in your life and are doing from music, to acting, to politics, to social advocacy, etc. But have you always been such a curious person? Why are you so curious?

Blades: My grandmother. I think being born in Panama was a blessing because Panama is a port city. It’s a really – the mentality is that – I remember that of admitting things in. You know, ports, ideas come in and out all the time.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to grab me – you know, working class family – she used to grab me by the hand and we would go walking down (inaudible) towards (inaudible), the South Sea past the Masons – The Masons had a building there – past that and stand there and look at the ocean for hours, you know, sitting down, talking. I remember asking – but it was my grandmother who allowed me to be curious, who allowed me to ask questions.

I remember I asked my grandmother once, I mean, we were walking. We were going to the movie theater that was nearby at 10 cents, and they had the coldest air conditioning unit in the western hemisphere [laugh].

We used to go there. We lived in a little room, so it was hot as hell. So we would go there and, you know, there’d be cold penguins jumping around [laugh]. And then there was a gentleman that sold hotdogs for like five cents. It was wonderful. Three movies, comics, documentary, whatnot.

And as we were going there, a funeral procession passed by and I stood. I was about three or four years old and I asked my grandmother, “Why are you stopping?” And she said, “There’s a procession to the cemetery.” And I said, “What is a cemetery?” She said, “That’s where people go when they die.”

And I said, “What’s that mean, die?” Then she explained to me and then it dawned on me. I said, “You gonna die one day?” And she looked at me and she said, “Yes, and so will you.”

So that kind of scenario, you know, of like I ask a question and I don’t get a blah-blah-blah, but I get an answer. And being allowed to question. I go, “Who you praying to, Grandma?” “I’m praying to God.” I think about it and I ask her, “Who does God pray to?” And then she would look at me and we would have conversation.

So I grew up with her sense of justice and she was always fighting for women’s vote. She had four children and she married twice and divorced twice. I mean, to get divorced in 1915, that was tough.

And she had gone and gotten educated. High school was the biggest education you could have at the time and she did. Then she had a job on her own. She did not want alimony from either of the two men she married, so she had four children, two men, two women. She didn’t have money to send the four to school, so she sent the women to school and the two men she taught at home.

And when I asked her, “Why did you do that?” she said, “It’s a man’s world. Women have to be educated.” So she taught me how to read when I was like four or five and I would never hear “You can’t do this.” And she talked to me about painting, about writing, about drawing, you know. So I grew up thinking if I like it, I’ll try it.

Tavis: You took her seriously, obviously [laugh].

Blades: Absolutely. But everybody else thought that it was nuts, you know. When I was six years old, I wrote a story and she encouraged me, so I wrote a short story which I sent to a national, you know, first grader’s competition, and it won.

But I was cited by my parents and everybody because they kept saying, you know, he couldn’t have written this on his own and my grandmother got very upset about it. She went with me the day to receive the thing. And she always knew that I could do all these things. I wasn’t sure. I was just having fun when I was trying to do these things.

Tavis: It’s one thing – I love the story. I’ve said many times that we are who we are because somebody loved us.

Blades: Absolutely.

Tavis: We are who we are because somebody loved us.

Blades: I agree.

Tavis: So I love the fact that your grandmother allowed you to be curious. It’s one thing to be curious, though. It’s another thing, though, for that curiosity to lead you to be courageous enough and willing enough to question authority. Curiosity is one thing in and of itself, but to question authority is quite another thing and you’ve done a lot of that in your lifetime.

Blades: Again, with curiosity and when you try to reach for a rational response through that curiosity, you learn also to discern and identify lies and/or intents to deviate the question. So I wouldn’t give up on that. And when you’re a kid and you ask a lot of questions, you a lot of times do not get – they don’t give you attention either.

They’ll say shut up and leave me alone or whatever. But you have to also understand that, in the conditions that we were raised in the place where we were, that’s why I said Panama was such an important place. You have people from all over, you know.

It was working class, but everybody shared the same sort of goals and the same values and ideas. All our families were composed of women, mothers and grandmothers, who died without ever having a holiday. You know, they were workers. My mother never finished elementary school. My father didn’t, and that was a reality for many of us.

So there was this thing where everybody was saying we got to study, we got to move, we got to take the thing further than they could because that’s what the parents wanted. So that environment also allowed me to be in contact with other people and measure ourselves and question ourselves and pick up from others questions and positions.

And there was a moment where the more information that you got, the less you were going to be happy with those kind of responses that you would get. So immediately the idea of questioning authority just came with the knowledge that you received.

Tavis: So when you became the authority in your position as Minister of Tourism for your native Panama, what’d you learn? What was the takeaway from having actually served as a government official?

Blades: I learned, first of all, I came out of there less selfish a person than when I walked in because I dedicated five years of my life. I didn’t do any…

Tavis: No music, no touring, no movies…

Blades: No. I didn’t even have a guitar in the house because I didn’t want to be tempted or distracted. It might have been extreme, but that’s the way I go. That’s the way I play. Less selfish, I understand people more.

I used to be, in that sense, arrogant in that when you explain things or you say things that you think or know are true and people don’t respond to them, you think that they’re doing it on purpose. And that is arrogant because a lot of times people don’t respond because they don’t understand. They just don’t get it, so you have to teach them.

So that’s another thing I learned. We have to be patient with people. We have to listen to people and you also have to understand what is the core of the issue. What’s the core of the problem? I didn’t get it before I had that responsibility.

I came out also knowing that you can actually work and make things happen from government. Some people go into government and come out of government disappointed. I didn’t come out of government disillusioned. I thought to myself, boy, if this will that some of us have – because I wasn’t the only one. There were other good people as well.

Not everybody goes to government to serve themselves and not their country. But if there were more of us, that will could grow more. Instead of fingers, we’ll be a hand, you know, and we would work as a hand. So I came out of there thinking this can be done. We can really make this happen.

And as far as the question regarding what you were saying originally about what did I learn being in that position, having that kind of power, that I didn’t need it to be who I am.

Tavis: That’s powerful. That is powerful in and of itself.

Blades: Yeah, because they say, “Well, what are you gonna do, Mr. Minister? You’re not Minister now.” I don’t need to be recognized as that to view who I am. I don’t need that kind of…

Tavis: It’s clear, thanks to your grandmother, that you were so comfortable with the skin that you’re in. And just the point you’re making now, you learned that you didn’t need the power to be who your grandmother helped shape you to be ’cause you’re comfortable being in the skin that you’re in.

So what then is the joy? What’s the takeaway from your acting when you get a chance to play somebody else?

Blades: First of all, we all are fans of someone. I mean, I’ve been seeing movies since I was a kid, like I said before. So for me, all of a sudden to work with people that – you know, Harrison Ford, I don’t know if he can sing, but I’ve never seen him singing…

Tavis: He’s a pretty good actor, though.

Blades: Yeah. So for me to be a part of his world or with Jack Nicholson or Chris Walken or Christine Lahti, all these people that I admire, to work with these people for me was like a dream come true.

But also to play a character that was not me allowed me to develop even more, to look at the situation from a different perspective, which I already have for being a lawyer. When you train – because it is training – when you go through it, you learn to see the argument from different points of view. The worst thing you can do is just see it from your point of view. I put myself in the other person’s position.

So when you do a film and you do characters that are not necessarily you, you learn a lot about yourself, but you also learn to be more (inaudible) to people. You learn to understand people better. I mean, I find – and, plus, it’s fun, you know. I still would like to do a western one day or a pirate.

Tavis: But this next movie coming out is the…

Blades: “Hands of Stone.”

Tavis: “Hands of Stone,” yeah.

Blades: The Roberto Duran story.

Tavis: Roberto Duran. Great fighter, man.

Blades: Yes, and a great guy. I mean, I always have had and always will have tremendous respect and affection for him.

Tavis: And you’re playing what in this movie?

Blades: I’m playing Carlos Eleta, his manager. See, that was tough to do because biographical films are not necessarily faithful representations of how things were. And when you have some of the players alive or when you have some of the people who knew the players, no matter what you do, you’re gonna have somebody that are gonna come to you and go, “That’s not the way it was!” And you go like, “Well, no, that’s not the way it was!”

I used to tell them, “You know, you’re not from Panama. I am. I’m gonna bump into these people on the bus or in the supermarket or walking around the street.” But I think, all in all, I think it’s not a documentary, but I think it stuck to the guns, so I think it’s gonna be good.

Tavis: Can you tell me – you’re such a renaissance man – in 30 seconds or less, can you tell me what’s next? What have you not done that you want to do now [laugh]?

Blades: I want to rest [laugh].

Tavis: You know what? I’m gonna let you do that right now after I tell people that the new project from Rubén Blades is called “Tangos.” He’s taken some of his best salsa stuff and turned them into tangos and I think you will be pleasantly surprised, as I was, how much you enjoy what he has done with this classic stuff.

I didn’t think that it would work, but it does. And if anybody can pull it off, you can, Mr. Blades, so thank you, sir.

Blades: Thank you very, very much.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. You are free now to go rest in about five seconds after I tell you thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: August 4, 2014 at 11:20 pm