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World Music Legends

Rubén Blades

By Chris Nickson
Published January 30, 2006

Latin

There aren’t many people who’ve expanded a musical genre, enjoyed a successful acting career, gained an advanced degree in international law, and run for the presidency of their homeland. But there is one, and his name is Rubén Blades.

          As a salsero, first with Ray Barretto then Willie Colón—two of salsa’s most glittering stars—he made his name as a stunning singer and writer, penning songs like the gritty “Pedro Navaja,” which became the biggest-selling single in salsa history. But his talent truly began to shine in the 1980s, after branching out on his own, and making a series of records that used salsa as a musical base, but took ideas from rock, reggae and elsewhere, bringing Blades a whole new, largely Anglo, audience that took to his very political lyrics, even if they were in Spanish. Mixing salsa with the more thoughtful ideals of the nueva cancion movement that had become a force in Latin music, he created something quite profound and influential.

          “I expanded the music’s base with my lyrics,” Blades said proudly. “I drew more people into the mix who were willing to think as well as move their bodies.”

          That would have been enough of a lasting achievement, even if it came while the concept of world music was still a very small speck on a very large map. But Blades has gone much further, even running for President of his native Panama in 1994, although he’d lived in the U.S. for two decades. It was simply his protest, a way of speaking out against a repressive regime. As he explained, “At no moment did I think I was going to become president or anything of the sort, but if I would have been, it would not have been through a desire for power. What we attempted was to bring to the fore the existence of an important sector of the Panamanian population that disagrees and cannot identify with the policies applied to them. My political campaign fully achieved that purpose.”

          It was symbolic, it was quixotic. But romance has always been part of the Latin heart, and Blades has always worn his heart very proudly on his sleeve in every aspect of his life. And, in fact, he finished second.

          For a brief moment he even managed to become the darling of the intellectual white rock elite, working with artists such as Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and Sting on 1988’s Nothing But The Truth, his first English language recording. But thankfully, rather than getting drawn into that circle, he’s remained very much his own man.

But being his own man has perhaps been the defining maxim of Blades’ life. After witnessing American policy in Panama as a child, he chose t

Recommended albums

Buscando América (1984, Elektra/Asylum)

Ruben Blades and Son de Solar…Live (1990, Elektra/Asylum)

Siembra (Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, 2000, Fania)

Greatest Hits (1996,WEA International)

Mundo (2002, Sony Discos)