Lawyer, singer, actor, activist, politician, writer… Why choose only one when you’re as talented as Rubén Blades? The multitalented artist with the sharp lyrics and outspoken character has been the voice of Hispanic America for the past couple of decades. And with his personality, it’s no wonder why.
Born in Panama, from parents of Cuban and Colombian descent, seems like the latin culture is running deep in his vains. Now, if you add to the mix his admiration for Puerto Rican legendary singer Cheo Feliciano who inspired his vocal style, you naturally have someone who knows how to represent the whole Latin community. His interest for music came at an early age, with songwriting being his favourite part of the process.
It is a blessing to be an artist so sure of yourself, your talents, your potential and your identity. And when you combine that with the right balance between audacity and modesty, you are guaranteed success in this tough industry. For Blades, success came after he moved to New York. He started working in the mail room of Fania Records, as that was the only job available in the company that interested him more. This way, he proved that you just need to put one foot through the door and then you’re in, no matter how big or small the step. He had already obtained a law degree from the University of Panama at this point, but had no interest in pursuing that career. He wanted to write and sing, to express his feelings and thoughts and give that back to the people to be entertained with. The opportunity he was looking for came soon enough as he started working with the great Willie Colón. Many big hits came from this collaboration, including the album “Siembra”, the best selling salsa album in record history.
Blades’ lyrics speak right to the hearts of people across Hispanic America, but also immigrants who left those countries for a better life in the US. Being deeply political himself, he couldn’t just sing about love, relationships and heartbreak. He draws his inspiration from everyday life, what he sees and hears happening around him. His songs unfold themselves like stories everyone can somehow relate to. It’s almost like he’s painting a picture with words. A perfect example for that is his hit song “Pedro Navaja”, that talks about a thug and his unfortunate ending. Through all these years he has been writing, composing and collaborating with other artists non-stop, always up for experimenting and trying things that he finds interesting, winning several awards along the way, including some esteemed Grammys.
In the meantime, he’s also holding an acting career, participating in many various productions, including Paul Simon’s Broadway musical “The Capeman” in 1998, as part of the original cast together with Marc Anthony.
His uneasy spirit and his profound love for his country and roots, leads him to found the party Movimiento Papa Egoró and run for the Panamanian presidency in 1994. As a public figure already loved by the people through his songs, he gained quite a lot of followers, but finished third in the final round of elections. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running again in the future, though, as his activist actions stay strong.
It goes without saying that Blades has managed to leave a legacy. The musician that couldn’t be restricted in one genre, or that didn’t want to conform with the market’s demands. The artist that wanted to experiment and challenge himself in various art forms. The educated lawyer who wanted to guide his country and help make the right political decisions in uncertain times. The person that’s adored by millions of people in America. But in the end, there’s no better way to describe him than with his own lyrics, from the song “El Cantante”:
Yo soy el cantante, muy popular donde quiera
Pero cuando el show se acaba soy otro humano cualquiera
Y sigo mi vida con risas y penas
Con ratos amargos y con cosas buenas
Yo soy el cantante y mi negocio es cantar
Y a los que me siguen mi canción voy a brindar
I’m the singer, really popular wherever I go
But when the show ends I’m just another human
And I continue my life with laughs and sorrows
With bitter moments and with good things
I’m the singer and my business is to sing
And to those who follow me, I will give them my song
*You can catch a screening of “Ruben Blades is not my name” (2018) directed by Abner Benaim at this year’s edition of IN-EDIT. In collaboration with Extremos, a salsa workshop will follow the screening that will turn into a party, with tunes provided by DJ Ryad. A night not to be missed.