Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 16 July 1948, Panama City) Singer-songwriter, bandleader. His father was from St Lucia, mother Cuban; both were musicians. He began singing with Conjunto Latino while at school '66 and was a member of Los Salvajes del Ritmo '67-9 (Rubén Blades Con Salvajes del Ritmo reissued '96 on Lucuso). The album De Panama a Nuevo York '70 with Pete 'Boogaloo' Rodríguez band, made on a visit to NYC, included nine songs by Blades. He graduated from the U. of Panama and worked as a lawyer for the National Bank. He joined his family in Miami '74 (they had gone there '73 fearing reprisals due to his father's association with a group accused of attempting to assassinate General Omar). He joined the Ray Barretto band (replacing Tito Allen), sang on his Barretto '75; wrote hits for singer Ismael Miranda, bandleaders Ricardo Ray, Bobby 'La Compañia' Rodríguez and others (Interpretan a Rubén Blades '81 was a compilation of hits he wrote for Ray, Miranda, Rodríguez, Cheo Feliciano, Tito Puente, Roberto Roena, Héctor Lavoe, Pete 'El Conde' Rodríguez); made LP The Good, The Bad, The Ugly '75 with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe (his self-penned hit 'El Cazangero' from the album earned him the '76 Latin NY magazine Composer of the Year award); he appeared on Fania All Stars' Tribute To Tito Rodríguez '76 and sang on Barretto's live two-disc Barretto Live: Tomorrow the same year; he appeared on Fania All Stars LPs '77-80 and sang lead and chorus vocals on Larry Harlow's salsa suite La Raza Latina '77. His work with Colón began in earnest with Metiendo Mano! '77, his unconventional (for salsa) social realist lyrics combined with Colón's eclectic pan-Latin music. The international bestseller Siembra '78 made them a new force, hits 'Pedro Navaja' (perhaps his most famous composition: a salsa reworking of 'Mack The Knife') and 'Plástico' (an attack on superficiality and call for Latino unity, hope and freedom) proving that songs need not be odes to love. His 'Paula C' '78 from album Louie Ramírez y sus Amigos was a hit. His two-disc concept LP Maestra Vida '80 mixed songs and narrative in song-poem about lives of ordinary Latin Americans. The Grammy-nominated Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos '81 was followed by The Last Fight '82, their last collaboration, named after the unsuccessful film in which they both appeared.

Blades went to Elektra records '84 and resurrected the format of the Joe Cuba Sextet in a band called Seis del Solar (Six from the Tenement) for LP Buscando America '84 (voted as one of the ten best albums of '84 by Time magazine), juxtaposing doo-wop, a Peruvian tune and pure salsa; the stand-out track 'GDBD' is minimal half-spoken rap against Afro-Cuban percussion. Buscando America and LPs El que la Hace la Paga and Mucho Mejor on Fania '83-4 were all nominated for Grammys; he appeared in the film Crossover Dreams '85 and wrote songs for the soundtrack; his first Grammy winner Escenas '85 on Elektra went further from salsa roots, including a soul-ballad duet 'Silencios' with Linda Ronstadt and a synthesized element including Joe Jackson on 'La Canción del Final del Mundo'; 'Muevete' (Move It!) is Blades's adaptation of a Cuban song by Los Van Van, an infectious danceable call to Latins against US domination. He was the subject of a Channel 4 UK documentary The Return Of Rubén Blades '86 by American film-maker Robert Mugge. He graduated from Harvard Law School and declared his intention of a political career in Panama; he did a historic double act with Los Van Van at Paris Olympia May '86 for the finale, a joint version of 'Muevete'; also appeared live in London in June with Seis del Solar. The Grammy-nominated Agua de Luna '87 on Elektra (Moon Water) included songs based on Gabriel García Márquez, but this literary project flopped commercially; Doble Filo '87 on Fania, probably a contractual obligation album, incluxed his 'El Cantante', written for Lavoe late '70s. The misjudged rock-oriented crossover English-language Nothing But The Truth '88 also flopped; his fortunes improved with the Grammy-winning Antecedente '88, on which the renamed Son del Solar was augmented by a trombone section.

Meanwhile he pursued a Hollywood movie career, acting in Critical Condition '87, The Milagro Beanfield War '88, Dead Man Out '89 (for which he became the first Latino to receive an ACE award, 'American Cable Excellence'), The Lemon Sisters, The Two Jakes and The Josephine Baker Story '91 (TV mini-series). The double album Rubén Blades y Son del Solar Live! '90 was his last on Elektra; he switched to Sony for Caminando and Amor y Control '91-2, both nominated for Grammys. He helped organize the political party Movimiento Papa Egoró (MPE) in Panama '92 and stood as its presidential candidate '94, finishing third. He reunited with Colón on the Grammy-nominated Tras La Tormenta '95 and made the Grammy-winning La Rosa de los Vientos '96 in Panama with local musicians, both on Sony Tropical. He appeared in the controversial pro-IRA film The Devil's Own '97.

In 2005 Blades had become Minister for Tourism in Panama and was researching the history of his country's music, especially jazz, which might have been as vital as Cuban music, but had remained obscure because there were no recording facilities in Panama until the 1950s. The most famous Panamanian musician was Luis Russell, who had emigrated and become one of the most prominent bandleaders in New York in 1929, later becoming Louis Armstrong's music director (see his entry).