Songwriter, Actor, Lawyer, and Political Figure
Rubén Blades was born in a rooming
house in a small Latin American country, but he refused to see
limitations or barriers; his work has crossed geopolitical borders,
cultures, and genres and made an impact throughout the world.
As a musician he has won 10 Grammys,
including one in the World Music category. As an actor he has won a
Cable ACE Award and received Emmy, Independent Spirit, and ALMA
nominations. ASCAP honored him with its Founders Award and the Grammy
Recording Academy with its Heroes Award. The Hispanic Heritage
Foundation honored him with its arts award, and the Hispanic
Organization of Latin Actors honored him with its Raúl
Juliá HOLA Founders Award.
Blades has made landmark albums in classic
Afro-Cuban salsa as well as Afro-Cuban music touched with rock, jazz,
pan-Latin, and other influences from around the world. He has
collaborated with rock, jazz, pop, hip-hop, reggaeton, and salsa
artists. He has composed hundreds of songs and dozens of hits known for
their eloquent, politically-aware lyrics, colorful characters, and
Beyond his artistic success, Blades has
always had an eye for political activism. In 1994 he formed a political
party, Movimiento Papa Egoró (“Mother Earth” in the indigenous
Embera language), and ran for president of his native Panama.
He holds degrees in law from the University
of Panama and Harvard Law School. He was named U.N. World
Ambassador Against Racism in 2000. In 2006 the president of Chile
awarded him the Pablo Neruda Order of Cultural Merit, and in 2010 the
president of Ecuador honored him with their Orden Nacional al
Mérito Cultural. He has received an Honorary Doctorate
degrees from Berkeley University in California (Chicano Studies),
Lehman College in the Bronx (Humanities) and the Berklee College of
Music in Boston (Music).
The Loeb Music Library at Harvard
University recently formed The Rubén Blades Archives with the
purpose of collecting his work and papers.
He is married to Broadway actress/singer Luba Mason and currently lives in
actions should match your words, and that public service is a duty.
"Si piensas y haces
lo que sientes, eres
| Emma, Rubén, Anoland
Rubén Blades (pronounced 'Bleids'
in Panama and by the whole family) was
born on 16 July 1948, of grandparents born in
Colombia, St. Lucia, Spain, and New Orleans, USA in the cultural
crossroads nation of Panama. From birth, Blades was exposed to
music through both of his parents. 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. Radio, playing
every kind of music, was a constant presence in their home.
His grandmother Emma Blades Bosques was also a great influence. She was
a spiritualist, a Rosicrucian, a vegetarian, a painter, a poet, and a
feminist. She taught him to read and exposed him to many ideas.
His English-speaking grandfather Reuben Blades was born in St. Lucia,
and came to work in Panama as an accountant during the building of the
On the Cuban side, Rubén descends from writers and
revolutionaries who fought for independence from Spain.
abuela Emma who was with me at all times, instilled me with a sense
of justice, that we can all serve as part of the solution. That is the
perspective from which I developed and the foundation to help me move
In Panama, Blades grew up on U.S.
culture and rock
& roll. At age 9, he saw Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers in the
film Rock, Rock, Rock and
decided to write a letter asking to join the
group. His mother didn’t mail the letter, but she did buy him a plastic
Then in 1964,
civilians were killed and wounded by U.S. soldiers and Canal Zone
police during riots that erupted when students tried to fly the flag of
Panama next to that of the U.S. at Balboa High School. This event was
traumatic for the nation and deeply affected the fifteen-year-old
turned friends into enemies. Even today , that's the pity of U.S.
policy in Latin America."
As a student at the University of Panama
he composed, sang, and recorded with various
groups. including Los Salvajes del Ritmo
and Bush y sus Magnificos. When the university closed due to riots in
1968, he traveled to New York City and contacted Pancho Cristal, Cheo
Feliciano's producer. Cristal had heard
Blades sing in Panama and got him together with “boogaloo” Pete
Rodríguez to make a record. From Panama to New York
was released in 1970 but didn't attract much attention. Blades says
that due to the Che Guevera-inspired song "Juan González", it
was banned in 17 countries.
Blades returned to his country to finish his law degree. Immediately
after graduating he joined his family in Miami, who had been pressured
to leave Panama for political reasons.
He then returned to New York and took the only job available at Fania
Records: in the mailroom.
wouldn't record me. I had to push a cart full of mail from 57th
and Broadway to 52nd Street every day."
While the job was not glamorous, it gave him contact with the New York
Latin music scene. Performers such as Richie Ray
Cruz, Nestor Sanchez, Bobby Rodríguez, Tito
Roena, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, and Ismael
Miranda recorded his compositions.
His opportunity to sing
Barretto needed a new vocalist, and auditioned him in the mailroom.
He was hired and shared lead
vocals with Tito
Gomez on the Grammy-nominated album Barretto (1975)
Barretto Live (1976). He performed with Larry
Harlow and sang on the Grammy-nominated La Raza Latina (1977).
He provided backup and guest
vocals for other Fania recordings and the Fania
All-Stars. A guest appearance on Willie Colón's The
Bad the Ugly (1975) brought him widespread recognition for his
Cazangero" (lyrics &
was more interested in Afro-Cuban music and jazz.
Willie was more interested with things that had to do with Latin
America, and he allowed me to record my songs. It was a wonderful group
of people, which I had the privilege to meet and work with."
This successful collaboration led to
Blades joining forces with Willie
Colón, replaceing Héctor
Lavoe as singer, and bringing his own ideas and compostions with
Colón and Blades partnership would
mark an important shift in salsa
Their album Siembra
(1978) was an international smash hit, with songs and arrangements that
spoke to both the head and the feet, and uplifting and compelling
social messages. The story song "Pedro Navaja" broke records and
remains a beloved classic.
of a sudden you had a record that was confronting issues and that
was unheard of at the time."
This ground-breaking album was
another, the two
Vida (1980), a musical drama using characters to explore social
issues in a very personal way. Blades blended theatrical, literary, and
concepts with the music of the streets to tell his story of a family in
In 1982, Blades was given the
opportunity to pursue his interest in acting. Fania owner Jerry
Massucci offered him a role in a low budget movie entitled The Last Fight, directed by Fred
played a boxer who also sang, so we could sell a few records."
Although the film was not successful, it gave Blades his first
experience in the film medium. The highly acclaimed independent film Crossover Dreams followed in 1985,
and his acting career was launched.
|As seen on SDRB: Seis del Solar
July 16, 1984
At the same time, Blades had decided to
form his own band and develop his own musical ideas. Discontented with
Fania’s business practices, he signed with Elektra Records.
He formed the Joe Cuba-inspired sextet
Seis del Solar, eliminating the traditional salsa brass section and
experimenting with rock and jazz elements. When he recorded Buscando America
(1984), rock and jazz journalists around the world took notice and
began to write about him and his music.
wanted to make an urban American album that can be appreciated by any
American city dweller and may bring people who haven't identified with
salsa a bit closer to us."
success, he took a break to attend Harvard University School of Law,
with the long-term goal of returning to Panama with the credentials to
be taken seriously in politics. He earned a Master's Degree in
International Law in 1985.
needed something to humble myself, and believe me, that school, which
was no picnic, did it."
The documentary The Return of Ruben
Blades captures his
graduation, and his return to performing.
brought him his first Grammy. His next experiment was Agua de Luna
(1987), inspired by short stories of Colombian magical realist author
Gabriel García Márquez, exploring literary concepts in
songs. Working with rock pioneers Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and Sting,
he recorded Nothing
But the Truth (1988) where he joined his multi-cultural rhythms
and political themes together with English lyrics.
want people to acknowledge the possibilities of a Latin artist fully -
meaning we can do English, too."
The same year, he expressed devotion to
his roots as Seis del Solar evolved into Son del Solar, bringing back
the brass section for Antecedente
(1988), which won him his second Grammy.
second movie was Crossover Dreams
directed by Leon Ichaso. He played a salsa musician
trying to introduce
himself into the American market, and he also co-wrote the screenplay.
It was critically acclaimed and went into general release as a
successful independent film.
can't say enough for the people of East Harlem. They brought us soup
and let us film in their homes in exchange for our painting them.
Everybody in the community cooperated. It was a Latin effort done by
ourselves to help ourselves."
1988 also saw his first important Hollywood
film role, in The Milagro Beanfield
War directed by Robert Redford.
was followed by a leading
role in Dead Man Out (1989),
where his portrayal of a killer on death row earned him the Cable ACE
Best Actor Award. [see trailer]
Other acting credits include: Crazy
From the Heart and The
Josephine Baker Story (1991), both earning him Emmy nominations;
the Broadway musical The Capeman
by Paul Simon (1998); the TV series Gideon's
Crossing (2000); and Once
Upon A Time in Mexico (2003). [See imdb]
during The Capeman
that he met his current wife Luba
started acting by choice, however, when I get involved in something, I
try to learn everything there is, and what I learned in Hollywood and
television in this country is that you can't sit around and wait for
the opportunities to come by."
True to his social activism, Rubén Blades returned to Panama to
run for president in 1994, as the founder and head of the Papa
Egoró Movement. He ran a grassroots campaign of ethics and
equality between cultural and social groups across all economic
classes. He came in third of seven candidates.
order to sustain the integrity of the work, I felt I had to go out
there on the streets and try to make political change possible through
the political process, not just singing. We proved it could work. We
came in third out of 24 parties, with 18% of the vote. I'm a better,
less selfish person for it."
Returning again to music, his
restlessness led him to incorporate even broader influences, leading to
a trilogy of Grammy winning recordings: La Rosa de los Vientos
(1996), with Panamanian musicians and composers; Tiempos (1999)
with the trio Editus, in which he incorporated elements of contemporary
classical music and jazz; and Mundo (2002),
with an expanded Editus Ensemble, fusing Irish, Arabic and Afro-Cuban
instruments and rhythms.
This eclectic album won a Grammy for Best
World Music and a Latin Grammy for Best Contemporary Tropical Album.
Guest artists included bagpiper Eric Rigler and Broadway
singer and actress Luba
is absurd and my new record reflects that."
As guest artist on the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's
second album Across
110th St. (2004)
he received a seventh Grammy award. His eighth was a Latin Grammy
for the video of "La Perla" with Calle 13 (2008). His ninth was a Latin
Grammy in the Cantautor category, for Cantares del
He was honored by
the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and
Sciences with its Heroes Award in 2004,
and ASCAP honored him with its Founders
I go back to Panama, I'm going to be very happy to be there
because I really believe in my country and I know we're going to do
good things there. It's not just a romantic dream; we can make things
in Casco Viejo, a few blocks
from Plaza Herrera in the San Felipe neighborhood where he was born and
with his fans
through SDRB, the Show de
videos on his web site, featuring
recommendations, and interviews with artists including Calle 13, Danilo
Pérez, and Blades’s wife, singer and actress Luba
When his government service was completed in July 2009, he
joined Luba for part of her
tour, performing duets in jazz clubs. In 2009 and 2010 the
long-awaited reunion of the original Seis del Solar in the Todos
Vuelven Tour was enjoyed by a million people across the Americas.
2011 saw a new tour, Una Sola Salsa together with Gilberto Santa Rosa,
film work, and other concerts including a tour in Europe with the
Roberto Delgado Orchestra, and "Musical Chronicles" tour in performing
arts centers in the U.S. He has many other projects in the works:
movies, books, recordings, tours.
marks the 25th anniversary of the still revolutionary Buscando America.
On 27 March 2010, Rubén was interviewed onstage at the
Carmichael Auditorium at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington
D.C., jointly sponsored by the American History Museum and the
Smithsonian Latino Center. (photos)
Blades en la
manifestó también su satisfacción porque la
Universidad de Harvard le ha anunciado que colocará toda su
historia y producción en la Biblioteca de la institución.
“Han hecho un
llamado internacional para que envíen todo tipo de
material, artículos, libros, ensayos de universidades,
tesis; va a ser
interesante para mí entender cómo la gente ha
percibido el trabajo mío”, dijo el creador de Plástico.
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