Birth: July 16, 1948 in Panama City, Panama
Rubén Blades has three very distinct careers that rarely, if ever, meet. As a Grammy Award-winning musician and salsa singer, Blades has released several salsa albums, including Buscando America,Escenas,Mundo, and Siembra, one of Latin music's most popular albums. As a popular Hollywood actor, he has appeared in such films as The Milagro Beanfield War,The Devil's Own,The Cradle Will Rock, and All the Pretty Horses. As an activist and politician, Blades has long been a champion of human rights issues. When he ran for president of Panama in 1994, he placed a respectable third.
Blades was born on July 16, 1948, in Panama City, Panama. He was the second of five children of Anoland, a piano player and nightclub singer, and Rubén Blades Sr., a musician, basketball player, and police detective. His paternal grandmother, Emma, was a cultured, free-spirited woman who played a major role in the boy's childhood. He grew up during the rock 'n' roll heyday of the 1950s and 1960s listening to Elvis Presley and the Beatles, but the family also listened to the American jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington, and to Latin American artists such as Beny Moré, Perez Prado, and the Orquesta Casino de la Playa. Blades idolized Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, who recorded the hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?," because Lymon was only 14 when he led the group. He wrote a letter to Lymon, asking to join the group, but Blades's mother, who wanted her son to concentrate on his education, did not send the note, but bought him a guitar instead. His visions of America were formed by the idealistic TV show Father Knows Best.
Blades got his first shot on stage as a last-minute replacement for the lead singer in his brother's rock-cover band, the Saints. Although he dreamed of playing in a band, the sobering 1964 Panama Canal riots led Blades to concentrate more on politics and his education. Though he continued to pursue his interest in writing socially conscious lyrics and singing Latin music, he pursued a law degree at the University of Panama.
When his university closed due to political unrest in Panama in 1969, Blades took a trip to New York City. There he witnessed Latin Americans living successfully in the States. Many of them, including Tito Puente, Machito, and Willie Colón, were making their way as musicians. He recorded his first album, De Panama a Nueva York: Pete Rodriguez Presenta a Rubén Blades, in 1970. The album did not sell well, and when the university was reopened, Blades resumed his education, earning a law degree in 1972. He worked as an attorney, performing with local bands in his spare time.
Blades's father, a member of the government secret police, was accused by General Manuel Antonio Noriega of spying for the American CIA. He refuted the charges, but moved to Miami with his family in 1973. Blades moved to New York a year later, and first worked for the Panamanian Consulate while trying to break into the salsa scene. He did so literally by taking a job in the mailroom of New York's leading salsa record label, Fania Records. It was there he got his big break, and began singing with Ray Baretto's traditional salsa band. He made his debut at Madison Square Garden with the band in 1974.
Blades met and began collaborating with the Bronx salsa musician Willie Colón in 1976. With Colón as arranger for Blades's songs, they released Willie Colón Presents Rubén Blades in 1977. Their album Siembra was released in 1978 and was considered the most popular salsa album in history, selling over three million copies. The album also produced a hit single, "Pedro Navaja," that "defied radio formats and yet has become the biggest-selling single in salsa history," according to Billboard. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Blades explained that the album became a hit "Because the people who bought it weren't just the dancers. They identified with the stories as much as the rhythm." Blades forged a new brand of salsa known as "salsa conciente," or salsa with a socially conscious message. Blades was chosen to tour with salsa greats Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, and Tito Puente as part of the Fania All-Stars group. A longtime fan of the silver screen, Blades got a chance to try acting in 1981 in The Last Fight. The film was a commercial failure, but the experience opened doors for Blades.
After five years and four gold records, Blades ceased collaborating with Colón in 1982 to focus on his own work, launching his solo group, Seis del Solar, or "Six from the 'Hood." The group was an unusual blend of traditional salsa and jazz, rock, doo-wop, and various Latin beats. Seis del Solar became very popular in Latin communities, but crossed over into the mainstream with Buscando América, the first salsa record released on a major record label, Elektra/Asylum. While most popular salsa albums are driven by dance and party tunes, Buscando América contained songs that were serious and often political. On the album Blades sang about slain human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and about the rampant kidnappings in South America, and criticized the Panamanian dictatorship of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. The song "El Tiburón" criticized the United States' actions in Central America, and caused an uproar in Miami's Little Havana community. The song was banned from radio stations, and Blades wore a bulletproof jacket while performing it in Miami. Regardless, the album sold 300,000 copies in its first five months, earned a Grammy Award nomination, and was listed on Time magazine's list of the year's top ten rock albums. After the album, Blades announced he was taking a year off to complete his master's degree in international law at Harvard University, which he did in 1985. He also co-wrote, acted, and sang in the independent film Crossover Dreams, playing a small-time salsa singer who wants to cross over into the mainstream.
While Buscando América was grounded in social commentary, Escenas, released in 1985, was based on personal relationships. It included a duet with Linda Ronstadt, "Silencios," and the album earned Blades his first Grammy Award. Seis del Solar's 1987 album, Agua de Luna, contained songs inspired by the works of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Marquez. His 1988 album, Nothing But the Truth, was his first album in English, and featured performances by such popular singers as Sting, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, and Lou Reed--a testament to how well known Blades himself had become. The album was strong on social issues. Tunes such as "The Letter" address AIDS; " Salvador" laments human-rights violations; and "Ollie's Doo-Wop" is a sarcastic ditty about Oliver North's involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1989 Blades added a seventh member to his group and changed the name to "Son del Solar," or "Sound of the 'Hood," and released the Grammy Award-winning album Antecedente. Blades earned his third Grammy for La Rosa de los Vientos in 1997.
While he was maintaining a busy recording and touring schedule, Blades was also building his career as a film actor. He appeared in Robert Redford's The Milagro Beanfield War as Sheriff Bernie, who tries to maintain peace between the citizens of a small village in New Mexico and the development company that is trying to build there. Though Blades received strong reviews for his part, the essentially Latin film was criticized because it was directed by an Anglo. His role as a convicted murderer in the HBO movie Dead Man Out was praised by critics, and earned him cable TV's ACE Award. Actor and director Jack Nicholson wanted Blades for his film The Two Jakes, and planned the film's shooting schedule around the musician's touring dates. In 1991 Blades played Petey the bookie in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues. Also in 1991, Blades played opposite Christine Lahti in Crazy from the Heart, a romantic comedy that addresses racial prejudice. He received an Emmy Award later that year for his role in The Josephine Baker Story. Blades has always tried to avoid being typecast in stereotypical Hispanic roles, such as those of the drug dealer or criminal.
Blades is active in many human rights campaigns involving his native Panama, but he has also backed international causes. He appeared with Bono of U2, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and other musicians in the anti-apartheid music video " Sun City" that debuted on MTV in 1988. In 1991 Blades traveled to Panama and founded the Movemiento Papa Egoró, which translates roughly as Mother Earth Party, or Motherland Party. The party vowed to fight hunger, unemployment, and drugs in Panama, and Blades ran for president of Panama on the party's ticket. He wrote and recorded his own campaign song, "The Good Seed," which declared that "change is coming." Though early polls favored him, Blades came in third in the election, a respectable showing for a non-politician. The Papa Egoró party, however, managed to win seven representational seats in the government.
Some critics have suggested that Blades might have been more successful in his bid for president of Panama had he not moved to Hollywood and married a blonde, blue-eyed, North American actress, Lisa Lebenzon. As Blades has achieved more mainstream success and popularity, there have been critics who have accused him of selling out. "Deep down, [Blades] knows he's forgotten his friends, his people, his country, his music, and himself," Leon Ichaso, the director of Crossover Dreams, was quoted as saying, in Rubén Blades. His supporters contend that while Blades has crossed over into the mainstream, he has taken his audiences with him, not left them behind.
Blades's later records became more world-inspired, exploring Celtic, Arabic, and Hindu influences in music. On Tiempos, released in 1999, Blades collaborated with the Costa Rican jazz group Editus to create a pan-Latin sound that he filled out with European classical music. He originally conceived of Mundos as a way to marry Irish and Latin sounds, but ended up making "a kind of map, where I began in the Northeast part of Africa, from Ethiopia, and I took that path to Asia Minor," he is quoted as saying in Billboard. "I crossed part of Turkey, what today are independent Russian republics. I crossed toward Europe and then I jumped to America. During that voyage, I integrated these sounds." Washington Post music critic Fernando Gonzalez wrote: "Blades crosses cultural borders to borrow whatever he feels he needs.... When it works, the sum effect is illuminating."
In 2003 Blades won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Tropical Album for Mundo. In 2005 he won another Grammy Award for Best Salsa/Meringue Album, for Across 110th Street, with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. He was also honored in 2005 with the ASCAP Founders Award, given to songwriters who have made pioneering contributions to music. In that same year, Berklee College of Music awarded Blades an honorary doctoral degree.
Blades has been minister of tourism for Panama since 2004. Describing this position, he told Sandra Marquez in People, "The bureaucracy drives me crazy. I didn't have a boss for, like, 30 years. But I feel that I am trying my best to help my country."
Born Rubén Blades on July 16, 1948, in Panama City, Panama; son of Anoland (a piano player and singer) and Rubén Blades Sr. (a bongo player, basketball player, and police detective); divorced. Education: University of Panama, B.A., political science and law, 1972; Harvard University, M.A., international law, 1985. Addresses: Office--c/o David Maldonado Management, 1674 Broadway, Ste. 703, New York, NY 10019. Agent--c/o Paul Schwartman, International Creative Management, 8899 Beverly Hills Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.
City of Chicago, named honorary citizen, 1984; Time magazine "Top Ten Albums of the Year" list, for Buscando América, 1984, and Escenas, 1985; New York Award for Buscando América, 1985, and Escenas, 1986; New York Post, New York Music Awards for Best Ethnic/International Act and Best Latin Act, 1986; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Performance, for Escenas, 1986; Latin Grammy Awards, Best Contemporary Tropical Album, for Mundo, 2003, and Best Salsa/Meringue Album, for Across 110th Street, 2005.
Songwriter and performer, 1970-; Banco Nacional, Panama City, Panama, member of legal staff, 1973-74; Fania Records, New York City, recording artist and legal advisor, 1973-83; Elektra Records, New York City, recording artist, 1984-; actor, 1983-; minister of tourism for Panama, 2004--.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 58. Gale, 2006.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.