The upcoming release of Siembra Live, the 1980 performance from Ruben Blades, Willie Colón and friends, reminded me of an interview I did with Blades back in 1996. This was first published in the Descarga Newsletter, but this is the first time the photos I took from that interview have ever been posted to the net. Blades proved to be a thoughtful and candid conversationalist, and he didn’t mind me snapping away during and after the interview. A real pro. Well, without further adieu, here you go… – elW
Ruben Blades handed me a cocktail napkin with the name Medoro Madera scribbled on it. We were at S.O.B.s in New York when La Familia Cepeda from PR and Grupo Afrocuba from Cuba were rocking the stage. The name on the cocktail napkin was, apparently, the elder Cuban who, according to Ruben, was the singer on “Un Són Para Tí,” the hauntingly beautiful són on Ruben’s most recent work, La Rosa De Los Vientos. Now, I love this tune, so I was happy when Ruben asked the DJ to play it after the set. I was happier still, when Ruben started to sing along to it — rather loudly. (We’d both had a few drinks).
I remember feeling somewhat lightheaded when Ruben, in very close proximity and singing directly at me, strangely transformed himself into Medoro Madera and was crooning with Madera’s voice, which really sounds nothing like Blades’ normal singing voice. Ruben was, of course, Madera on the CD. In fact, later, after a closer examination of the liner notes, I found where it said that the sonero was Blades alias Madera. Very cool.
After some more drinks and laughing a lot, Ruben consented to do an interview for this newsletter. We met the next Sunday morning, November 3rd, at his hotel were he was staying while in town for rehearsals for his role as The Capeman, an upcoming musical based on the murderer Salvador Agrón. Here’s what followed…
BP: Ruben, I thought we would do a general profile of you for readers who are not familiar with the vast body of work that you’ve produced. Let’s start with the basic stuff like exactly where you were born.
RB: I was born in Panamá, the Republic of Panamá, on July 16, 1948 in Panamá City, in an area called San Felipe. And my mother, Anoland Bellido de Luna, was born in Cuba. She was a singer and a piano player, excellent at both, and she went to Panamá in the late forties and she stayed there. She met my father who, at the time, was also a musician, Ruben Blades, born in Santa Marta, Colombia, and he went to Panamá when he was very little — I mean like months old. So my father is a Panamánian, but he was born in Santa Marta.
BP: I see. Did you grow up there, in Panamá?
RB: I grew up in Panamá. My grandfather on my father’s side was English. That is why my last name is Blades. When people ask me, “how is your name pronounced,” I say Blades. If people want to pronounce it Blá-des, I don’t have a problem with that, as long as they don’t think that I am ashamed of my name or that I’m trying to Anglicize my name to get over or that kind of stupid thing. But if somebody says Blá-des, you know, I’m fine with it. My grandfather on my father’s side was English, on my mother’s side he was born in Louisiana, in New Orleans. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was from Galicia in Spain, and on my father’s side, she was from Colombia.
BP: New Orleans is such an epicenter of music from all over the world, the way that transportation went through there…
RB: And commerce. Anywhere you had a commerce center, you had a lot of music.
BP: Some people say that the origins of clave in contemporary pop music could be found in Louisiana jazz.
RB: What is interesting in this is the exchange of music that occurred between New Orleans and Cuba, I mean, they had ferries that would go from one port to another. They had musicians, Kid Ory and all those guys — they were the root of jazz, of Dixieland and all that stuff, they were in New Orleans — they had contact with Cuba. There was a lot of stuff happening in Havana that was being heard and appreciated by New Orleans musicians because of this situation. And vice versa.
BP: What was the first music you recall hearing in Panamá as a child?
RB: I would have to say that it was a mixture of influences. In Panamá, the radio stations were very broadminded. In Panamá I did not grow up with the inflexibility of format radio. In Panamá the DJ would play you a big band, Stan Kenton, or play you Frank Sinatra or a Tony Bennett song and then he would follow up with Beny Moré or Casino de la Playa, and then he would probably put on a Mexican trio or he would put on a Puerto Rican trio, and then a guitar and voices, and then he could follow up with rock and roll. So I grew up listening to just about everything.
BP: A pretty full palette.
RB: Oh, yeah. That’s what I mean. In Panamá, most of us, our generation, grew up that way.
BP: When was it that you said to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to be a musician?”
RB: I was a kid, and I remember my mother singing. She was also a radio soap opera actress, but my mother sang. We did not have a piano at the house — we couldn’t afford one, and there wasn’t anyplace to put it. We lived in two rooms and there was no room for a piano. But, she played piano, and I knew that, and I saw her sing, perform with the band, and I think that must have impressed me, tremendously. Plus, the fact that I was, in those days, like everyone else, pretty much a radio person. There was no television, so the radio provided you with everything. And music was a very important part of our lives. The radio was on all day. So, I think, it was a combination of elements. What really made me, I guess, become very interested in singing professionally was rock and roll. Because up to the moment when I saw Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers — they had a movie called Rock, Rock, Rock — I never saw a twelve year old singing. All the models that I had seen before were people who looked like my dad. Whether they were twenty or twenty-two made no difference to me, they looked like my dad. This was the first time I saw, like, a kid singing. Kids were singing and having fun and I wanted to do that. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers went to Panamá. They were huge — big — and they went to Panamá. I couldn’t see them. I wasn’t allowed to.
BP: How old were you, roughly, about that time?
RB: Nine, eleven, around there.
BP: And he was a contemporary. Someone close to your age that you could relate to.
RB: Frankie Lymon was someone that I saw and said, if he can do that, I can do that. And I think that was the thing with rock and I think that is why rock continues to have an appeal. Rock is young music, it is youth oriented. It just speaks for a generation.
BP: What kind of kid were you? Were you shy? Were you a natural performer? A ham? Did you perform for your family?
RB: I was very shy, and, no, I did not perform for my family. But, when I was about thirteen, I began to sort of sing in my neighborhood. We used to do doo-wop stuff and there was a building called Audisio. It had a great echo on the second floor. We used to go there and practice there. And then I started going there and singing boleros by myself.
BP: How old were you about that time?
RB: About thirteen.
BP: About thirteen years old, singing doo-wop stuff, hanging out with your friends, just getting together…
RB: Yeah, guys who liked music in Panamá, pretty much the same thing that was happening here. I mean, I remember once I was on the Johnny Carson Show and we were talking about our backgrounds, about Panamá and stuff and at one point I told Carson, I said, “You know this show is being seen in Panamá right now.” And he sort of reacted like, “oh, sure!”. It’s almost as if people think that in Latin America we’re not hip to what’s happening here. And we were. I heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” pretty much at the same time it was being heard in the United States, and with the same effect. I was about seven years old. It was ‘55 or ‘56. I was eight years old and I heard him and I said, “Who the heck is that.” I mean, he sounded so different from everything I’d ever heard before. And, we watched the Beatles one week after they showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show because of the U.S. Southern Command TV network. They had the shows, they presented them one week later. So we were pretty much in tune, and also, remember, just like Liverpool, Panamá was a port. So we had a port in the Pacific and a port in the Atlantic. So everything that ever happened, we knew about in Panamá.
BP: What brought you to New York and what year was it?
RB: The first time I came to New York was 1969. I came because the university, the National University of Panamá, had been closed by the military. And, the law faculty was closed, also, so that I had a year off, or almost a year.
BP: So you were going to law school?
RB: Yes, I was going to law school and it was closed in ‘69. And, my brother, Luis, was working at Pan American. And if you work at an airline, your dependents can travel for very little money, and I got to come to New York for, like, twenty dollars. But I had also made a connection with a producer here, Pancho Cristal. They were producing, like, The Joe Cuba Sextet and Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. And Pancho was, like, a big-time producer. A Cuban guy, a Cuban-Jewish guy. And, he’d seen me in Panamá, and he talked about maybe doing something in New York so I hooked it up when I came here and I recorded in 1969 my first album with Pete Rodriguez. Pete Rodriguez was the boogaloo guy. Not Pete El Conde. We did all the charts in, like, two weeks. Lino from La Sonora Matancera did a couple of charts, God bless him. I recorded that album and then I returned to Panamá. The university was reopened and I went back to the university. This is important to clarify, because a lot of people don’t understand that I came in ‘69 and then went back to Panamá to finish school. So that when I came to New York again, it was, I’m not too sure right now, but it was ‘74 or ‘75. I went to Miami in ‘74 and then I came to New York, I think, at the end of ‘74.
BP: At that time in ‘74, the story goes that you got your first gig at Fania sweeping floors…
RB: Before this, before my trip to New York, people like Roberto Roena and Richie Ray had tried to get me a contract with Fania. They had seen me performing in Panamá, but in Panamá I had to quit performing because teachers in the national university were against my performing. So that I was called and told, “You are not to perform again while you are a student of the faculty of law and political science in this university.” So I quit playing, but they had seen me, these guys, because we used to alternate whenever carnivals came. A lot of bands came from New York and Puerto Rico. In Panamá they had to be paired with local talent. A lot of these guys heard me sing. So when they went back to New York or went back to Puerto Rico, they went back saying, “This guy can sing, this guy can do this and he can do that, and he can write songs and he can do this and that.” So Richie Ray, Bobby Cruz and Roberto Roena recommended me to Fania people, and Fania, at the time, was the label. Everybody was at Fania Records. That was like the golden age of salsa. But they weren’t interested. So that when I came from Panamá…my family was exiled in 1973 and they went to Miami. My father had a problem with the military. So that in 1974, when I graduated as a lawyer, I figured I’m not going to be a lawyer under a military regime. It doesn’t make sense for me to be a lawyer in a place where there is no law. So I went to Miami in ‘74 with my family and while I was there it became obvious that we needed money and we needed to do something, because my family, we left without anything really, and we didn’t have any money to begin with. So my father had to start a new life, my mother had to start a new life, and then I was there for, like, six months and I wasn’t doing anything. So I called Fania and said, “Look, I’m here and I would like to record and do something.” They said, “Well, we really don’t need anyone to record.” I said, “Well, what do you have? Is there anything that you have?” They said, “Well, we have a place here, there is a vacancy in the mailroom.” And I said, “Well, I’ll take that.” So I came from Miami and I started working in the mailroom at Fania and, like you said, I was sweeping floors and picking up stuff. I used to push a cart filled with mail, it was so heavy that the U.S. Postal Service would not pick it up. I had to push it from 57th all the way to 52nd between Eighth and Ninth.
BP: This was outgoing mail?
RB: Yeah. This was outgoing mail that I’d prepared.
BP: From Fania?
RB: From Fania. All the records and stuff that I would mail out. So I was there for a while.
BP: And that was around 1975?
RB: That was ‘75, ‘74 or’75.
BP: What was your impression of producer Jerry Masucci and Fania at that time?
RB: Before I got to know them? Before I got to know them, I had a wrong sense of respect and friendship. Masucci was clever enough to understand the potential of the music and he made it big. He made it big. There’s no question about it, he facilitated the talent’s opportunity, but he ended up keeping their money. And it wasn’t really his money. It should have been live and let live. I mean, he can’t sing, he can’t write and he can’t play. And yet he’s a millionaire… and the people who made him the money? Every time one of them died we had to sort of pass the hat around to try to see how we could bury this person. And so, I don’t have a good memory of Jerry Masucci. I mean, you ask some other people and they’ll say, “Oh, Jerry! Jerry was very nice.” I say, “Why was he nice?” And I’m probably the only one at Fania who got back something. I mean, I sued him. They sued me, I sued them back and I got my music, my publishing. To this day he owes me money.
And mind you, Jerry’s a charming guy. You know, I think we had a love/hate relationship. Because I can respect his acumen and his vision, which he did have, and if it hadn’t been for Jerry Masucci and Fania, the impact of salsa music would have never occurred. I mean, this is a given, OK? So I respect that part of it. What I do not accept is the fact that so many people’s talents were ripped off. And that part of it I am upset about to this day. And I don’t think that it’s correct to be quiet about it, because that’s why these things happen.
And he ripped off everybody, including me. And I will never forget that because I went in as an artist, but my best records and everything— I did not get what I was supposed to get. Siembra and all that, they kept the money. And right now, like I said, a CD with no expenses, there are no expenses anymore, and he’s selling it for $15.00. They’re making a ton of money, and no one is getting a nickel. I want to try to see how I can do this, to try to get my money back from this guy. Although it’s practically impossible because they sell the product to one person who sells it to another person. He’ll tell you,”No, I don’t know, I already signed the catalog over to somebody else.” But he’s living like a king, and there are people here, I’m not bad off, but there are people here who really gave everything, their everything, and they have no money and they’re going through hell. And he’s not helping anybody.
BP: What alternatives besides Fania were available to young Latin musicians at that time?
RB: None. None, because Morris Levy was another charmer, and by the way was his (Jerry Masucci’s) role model. I mean, Morris Levy, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” Morris Levy, yeah, he wrote that song. Sure. You know, Morris Levy was in charge of Roulette in those days so that Morris had a deal with Jerry where Jerry took also Alegre and Tico with all their catalog and there was nowhere else to go. You had Fania and that was it. In those days the big U.S. labels didn’t have any particular interest in the Latin market. The only one was Roulette, which had Tico and Alegre and maybe somebody else, but there was nowhere to go. Fania was the only game in town.
BP: How did you first connect with Willie Colón?
RB: I saw Willie Colón for the first time in Panamá in 1969, I think it was, or ‘68, when he went with Héctor Lavoe, God bless him. And they were the first salsa group that I saw, again, that was composed of young people. They had an energy that was incredible. They went there for the first time, and there were a lot of bands that were established that went also that year for Carnival. But we were all impressed by Héctor Lavoe and by Willie Colón. I mean, they were like really…that group had an energy that was unbelievable. That was when I saw them for the first time, and that’s when I approached them for the first time. To give him songs.
BP: So you approached him to give him material?
RB: Material to record, yes.
BP: Was he receptive?
RB: He was receptive to it, but I didn’t give him anything at that time, and nothing really came out of it until I got back to New York. When I got to New York in ‘69, then I called him. And, although nothing came out of it as far as them recording my material, we started contact that proved to be important because in 1975, then, I ended up singing a song in a record that he had done called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And the next year when he quit the band, when he decided to go on his own with a different sound, that’s when we hooked up.
BP: That was in 1975?
BP: Salsa’s brightest era was in New York in the ’70s. You, as well as Willie and Héctor Lavoe and a handful of others were at the eye of that tornado…
RB: I have to tell you…something happened in the ’70s. When I walked in here, the process was already moving forward. And actually was perhaps already beginning to saturate itself because there was a certain degree of conformism. Every band had their own distinctive sound, but it was pretty much dancing music and rhythmic music with a tremendous emphasis on copying the Cuban models. There was a tremendous interest in everything African. So everything sort of went towards Cuba, towards Africa. When I walked in, I was coming from Panamá. I was the first person to come into New York with a Latin American point of view which was also very much influenced by political happenings in Latin America. So that I saw music as a way of documenting realities from the urban cities of Latin America. That is very important because it explains why, in the midst of this golden era, we managed to outsell everybody. By singing songs that no one in New York quite understood. The emphasis, again, was dancing and rhythm. I came in with an emphasis on lyrics. What happened is that people bought records when people went dancing on the weekends, or liked to hear the dancing music in the house. But when I came in with songs like “Plastico” and “Siembra” and “Pedro Navaja,” all of a sudden these songs were telling stories that were familiar to people in Latin America and what happened was that the albums were bought across the board. The grandmother, the mother, the worker, the student, the intellectual, the professional, the unemployed, everybody identified with the songs because they were descriptions of life in the city. So that where you sold 20,000, all of a sudden we were selling 350,000 records. So it was a big, huge impact that was caused by the fact of the lyrics and that is why Siembra became the first million seller.
BP: You and Colón were sort of like the Lennon and McCartney of salsa and Siembra was probably the biggest selling salsa album of all time.
RB: It was the biggest seller. What happened — this is something that people are not aware of. I wrote music and lyrics, or composed, I don’t like to say “write” because I don’t have formal training, but I created the songs, the music and the lyrics. What Willie did was produce these songs. And he’s an excellent producer, I mean, out there with anybody, one of the best.
BP: So he created the mechanics of making your concept happen?
RB: Yes, with his advice and his supervision. And, also, he had a tremendous, dynamic stage presence and he had the band. And he had a sound. So that that combination proved to be tremendously effective.
BP: So what was the typical routine like in your working relationship? You wrote lyrics, you got together with Willie…
RB: Basically what happened was I got the lyrics, I got the music and I would go to Willie Colón and we would get together and I either would present it to him in a tape, on a cassette, and/or with a guitar. And then we would decide who would be the arranger. Luis “Perico” Ortiz arranged “Pedro Navaja.”
BP: I didn’t know that.
RB: Yeah, a lot of people don’t know that. Luis “Perico” Ortiz arranged “Pablo Pueblo.” And Willie would arrange certain songs whenever he felt it was right — but that’s again his genius in producing. That he would find the right guy for the right song.
BP: Walk us through that era a bit. How did it climax and what happened thereafter?
RB: Well, it was very complex because at the time musicians here in New York were not treated very fairly, not only by the record companies but by the booking agencies. I decided we should book ourselves, so I started booking the band. And that was tough also because there was opposition from club owners and pressures made because at the time we were sort of subverting the order, the middle people who were making a lot of money. All of a sudden we were making this money direct without intermediaries.
And we had a tremendous success, I mean, in Latin America, when we arrived in places like Venezuela it was just…it was something else. I don’t think that in New York people in the Latin field understood what we were doing, nor accepted it that much. I think that other, more rhythmically oriented bands, had better reception. But outside of New York City, we were kings. And even here we had respect. But we weren’t like El Gran Combo, we weren’t like Héctor Lavoe and his orchestra, or Tito Nieves, or Conjunto Candela because we weren’t dance oriented bands. We had something to say. Whenever we played, people didn’t dance, they listened. Club owners hated that because their things is–you dance, you get hot, you drink and that’s where they make their money. They don’t want people behaving as if they were in a theater. So we had a situation there where we had tremendous success outside of New York.
I think in New York we had respect and we would pretty much fill up the places where we went, but I never got the sense that we really were Number 1 here in New York among the Latin crowds. I mean, in general, people who knew about music, they knew what we were doing and, again, they really respected us, but you had to not depend on the dancing as a reason why you would go out to really meet with us. We had a wonderful five years, and we produced, we did Metiendo Mano, Siembra, Maestra Vida Parts 1 and 2, Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos and then we had The Last Fight. So we had six albums.
BP: Think about those projects. Which one of those stands out in your mind or heart?
RB: I think all, actually, except for The Last Fight. Metiendo Mano was important because “Pablo Pueblo” came on that one and that was like the first score. The first song that dealt with political and social overtones. And that was my first album, Metiendo Mano. And then Siembra, of course, which was the one that sort of …Siembra did a lot of different things. On the political side it just created a platform for social commentary in a field that was, up till that moment, defined by its lightness and escapism. All of a sudden you had a record that was confronting issues and that was unheard of at the time. Also, it was the first time that songs were longer than three and a half minutes. So Siembra, in fact, went against all the programming schemes which existed up till the time when it came out. Songs like “Pedro Navaja” were six minutes long. It created a problem for programmers because they had their whole format and advertising built around the two and a half, three and a half minute song. When they tried to edit “Pedro Navaja,” people would call and scream at them. So they had to play the whole damn song. And so that also changed a lot of the way that radio was being played at the time.
BP: But they were danceable, those songs.
RB: Oh, yeah, but the notion was that we were too intellectual for the common man, which I always thought was a lot of bullshit. People are a lot smarter than anyone gives them credit for being. My last concert with Willie Colón was in Berlin. We played at the Waldune Auditorium in Berlin. And that was in 1982.
BP: Were you friends with Héctor Lavoe?
RB: I wasn’t friends, intimate friends with him. I was on good terms with him. I couldn’t really get to Héctor because we had different lifestyles. I didn’t do drugs, I never did do drugs. Never. I don’t have any story of drugs, you know, to speak of. Never did drugs, never was interested in drugs and then I wasn’t interested in the people around the drugs. So that if anyone used drugs, I mean for me that was a turn off and conversations couldn’t go beyond a certain stage. So that I wasn’t that friendly with Héctor whose life revolved around drugs in many ways and the people who were with him were also using drugs so…. I got to spend time with him as a professional, I always respected him, and as a singer I think that he was just very, very special. I gave him a tune called “El Cantante,” which I was going to use for myself, after one of the worst episodes that he had because of his drug use and that song helped to bring him back. And Willie did the arrangement. And I wrote the song and I was going to use it as my signature but he really needed it so I respected him enough to give it to him. And he sang the heck out of it, but unfortunately there wasn’t really that much closeness.
BP: Were you aware of his battle with AIDS and his illness?
RB: Well, I knew he was ill, I knew he was sick, but it was just something tragic. I mean… it’s tragic, a tragic side to Héctor that I always felt bad about. He really went through so many painful experiences. I mean in one period of like a year he lost his son, he lost his sister, his mother-in-law, his father and he had a fire in his house. It’s really horrible. He deserved so much better and I was very sorry to see him go so early but it was not unexpected. It wasn’t unexpected. He was an accident waiting to happen.
BP: It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility…of the intelligence around Héctor Lavoe.
RB: He was also smart. I mean, he wasn’t a person without intelligence. He was smart. But, that’s the thing about drugs and a certain lifestyle which I guess creates certain reactions and conditions. There were people surrounding him. I always used to tell him, I said, “You know, why don’t you move away from this?” And he really couldn’t. I don’t think he could. And, unfortunately, it ended up eating him. And also, again, he was ripped off royally by the record company and stuff so sometimes I try, not because I feel superior at all, but sometimes I try to imagine how my life would have been if I hadn’t had the kind of family I did and the kind of environment where I grew up. Before I start sort of passing judgment on other people, you know. A lot of times you’re just conditioned by what’s around you. So that it’s very difficult coming from a different environment to be able to grasp the realities, understand them. You come in and you try to talk to people and say, “Hey, don’t do that, that’s bad for you,” as if they didn’t know. It’s deeper and more complex than that. And Héctor was a very deep and very complex person.
BP: What is your friendship like with Willie Colón today?
RB: We’re not friends in the sense of friendships. Again, I think we have mutual respect for each other and we were never…when I was in New York I wasn’t like…I never went to his house and he never went to mine.
BP: Whose idea was Tras La Tormenta?
RB: I had that idea because I wanted to…before I started moving into what I considered to be my next stage as a musician, I wanted to do an album with Willie as a way of saying thank you to him and to everybody else because I think people wanted us to do a record. Unfortunately, the album didn’t come out the way we expected it to come and I certainly didn’t expect it to come this way. We had a political process in the middle which prevented me from being together with Willie which is what I wanted to do, and then Willie himself ran for senator.
BP: So did you have any contact during the recording or was it all done individually?
RB: It was done at the same studio but at different times. But the other problem was that I was living in California and Willie was living here in New York so it was very hard.
BP: Talk a bit about Seis Del Solar? How did you put that band together?
RB: After I left the band and Willie in ‘82, I gave him a whole year’s notice, you know, I wanted to go in a different direction. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that I wanted to do. I was thinking about going back to school and getting a post-graduate degree. I wasn’t sure where nor when. I wanted to explore film. I wanted to go to Panamá, I mean, there were so many things that I wanted to do. And I also wanted to move away from what we had done up till that time. You know, it was uncomfortable doing the same thing. I don’t like a rut. You know, just repeating the same thing year after year. And when I left Willie in ‘83, no it was in 1982 when I left Willie and the band, and in ‘83 I decided that I would start a smaller group. There would be more fusion and more experimentation.
And the only guy I knew was Oscar Hernández. And Oscar introduced me to Mike Viñas and Ralph Irizarry and Eddie Montalvo, whom I knew also. I knew Eddie and I knew Oscar. And I had seen this guy, Richie Marrero, an excellent musician, and then the other guy, Louie Rivera, I’d seen with Angel Canales’ band. So we had a meeting at my apartment near 81st Street. Everybody got together that day, we had a talk and they impressed me as people who were intelligent, who were willing to take risks, wanted to change things. We all discussed the type of salaries that were gonna be paid and everything and once we got to an arrangement that was satisfactory for everyone, then we said, “OK, we’re gonna start working.” And we started rehearsing at Boy’s Harbor in ‘83 and we recorded Buscando America in 1983 as an independent project. I didn’t have a record label. And Bruce Lundvall, who was with Elektra at the time, and who had known my work before, was interested and I went to Bruce and he loved the record and he pushed the heck out of it.
And that’s how Buscando America came about. And Buscando America made a lot of noise. And one of the reasons it made a lot of noise was that Bruce Lundvall accepted my suggestion that the record should, when printed in the U.S., have translations into English of the lyrics. And when it was edited in Germany, into German and so on and so forth. And so in Germany we sold more records than Prince that year. It was very interesting, and we went to Germany and we toured Germany like we were a German band in 1985. I mean, we played like thirteen cities. So that’s how that came about, the group. And then we worked…I think we did Buscando America, Escenas, and Agua de Luna. And then the band started growing. Then I decided that I was going to put some ‘bones in there and it became Son del Solar, because we were at six already. And that’s how the whole thing started.
BP: OK, let’s take a little tangential jump. Ruben Blades, President of Panamá. How does that title sound to you now that there is some distance from that election?
RB: I look at public service as something that becomes a responsibility if you can use your influence in a constructive way. Today, it’s unusual to find performers or people who are celebrities who have a background that would in any way prepare them for the responsibilities of public service. Michael Jordan can dunk a ball, but that’s about it as far as I can tell. I don’t see Michael Jordan, Senator or President. Maybe he can be that, I don’t know.
BP: There’s Bill Bradley…
RB: Yeah, but that’s a different story, Bradley went through law school. So it’s very unusual to have a singer/musician, who sings popular songs, who has the kind of background that I have. The background in itself doesn’t enable you to be successful as a politician, but it does create a possibility because of the discipline that you have to go through, through college to acquire the diploma. And when people look at me and they see me as a musician, they make a mistake if they think that I’m a one dimensional person. I’m not. The other circumstance is, that in a place where people do not respect politicians, people will place their respect on those they trust. I am trusted because of my success, my consistency and the quality of what I do. And also because I never robbed anyone there. The background, the legal background, brings a presumption of ability, of intelligence so that all of a sudden people will think and say, “Yeah, I can believe that this person would be able to do a better job than these people who are ripping me off.”
For me, the participation in politics derived from this knowledge on the one hand and, also, it came about as an act of self defense. I mean, I’m always complaining about what politicians do. Why not then do something about it? “Pablo Pueblo” is not just going to change the world with a song. We’re gonna change it through pacific ways or through violent ways. So we’re gonna do it the pacific way, which is the democratic process. Personally, there was another reason and it is the contradiction which arose between the singer who sings social songs, based on the plights and the virtues and the hopes of Latin America, and where those people were in in them. When I started writing “Pablo Pueblo,” I wasn’t making fifty dollars a month in Panamá. I went to the university during the day and went to work in the afternoons making fifty bucks a month. The Rubén Blades in 1996 can make twenty thousand dollars in one shot, in one concert. So there’s a big, huge gap there. And I started to confront that contradiction and say, “You know, I’m living better than the people I sing about.” And they made it possible for me to live the way I live, they made it possible for me and my family to escape the dire conditions that most of these people continue to be mired in. So the only way that I found to underscore the sincerity of the work, and to face the responsibility that I felt, was to take to the streets. I mean, you’re gonna change the world in the streets. And so abandon the commodity that wealth and fame or whatever gave you and go to the streets now with the people that you claim to care for and try to change something. And it was a very easy decision to make, in that sense.
BP: I can imagine it being an overwhelming almost sense of relief….I mean there is so much responsibility and weight tied to that position that it is in some ways a bondage, in a way. You’re not free to do other things. Do you still have feelings of loss in not winning that election or do you have some sense of relief?
RB: Well, it’s a mixture. I think that the country is not better off and I’m saddened by that, and I didn’t go in to lose, and I don’t like not to have been able to win, not in the personal sense, but in the sense of what it means to the country. We are worse off now than we were two years ago, so that hurts. I will not stop participating in the political process. However, I am not considering right now running for president in 1999. I don’t think the country’s ready yet, I don’t think I’m ready yet and one of the first things that I have to do is return to Panamá and stay there. And at the same time I have to give things the opportunity to mature and develop. And we began something that is very important by creating this party from scratch. Totally independent, not attached to any ideology or any special interest group. Nor is it derived from the traditional economic power bases in Panamá or anywhere else. And it is a process whereas we confront people with the need to assume responsibility for their decisions and their lives. It is a generational change which will produce the type of Panamá we all say we want. So this generational change began in 1991. I mean, I have no doubt in my mind that we got a lot more votes than were given to us officially. We came in third officially with 182,000 votes and I don’t believe that for one second. But to have come third, without any alliances in a field of twenty-four political parties with a candidate like myself who had no track record in politics, with no money — when we started the campaign I had three thousand dollars — and attacked by every single party and communication outlet, and to have been able to survive, and to have had the Panamánian people support it as they did gives me tremendous faith in the future of my country and optimism. And I am not going to turn my back on that. However, I am realistic. This is not an exercise in vanity. I am not going to use the trust that has been given to me for personal publicity gains. The country and myself are not prepared right now to go beyond organizing. That’s what we’ve got to do now is organize ourselves. So I’m not planning right now to run as a presidential candidate again at this time. That doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna do it in the future.
BP: Do you have any feelings about coming more politically visible here in the United States?
RB: No. I’m not a citizen, number one. Number two, the Latino community…we behave like tribes, like warring tribes and I will continue to try to be a spokesperson for reason, and to stress over and over and over the need to play our similarities against our differences. But I don’t see myself becoming active politically here because of the fact that I am not a citizen and also because right now really what we have to dedicate our efforts to is to try to create a common ground for all of the Latino representatives here. I mean, we really have to do that, and unless we do that we’re not going to have anything positive happening to our community in this country.
BP: Let’s take another turn and talk about your current project, The Capeman. The Paul Simon musical based on murderer Salvador Agrón. Did you seek that part or did you get a call?
RB: Yeah, Paul told me about it and I thought it was very interesting. I remember the case, the Salvador Agrón case. I remember reading about it in Panamá when I was about eleven years old. It was sort of like the original…drive-by. Right now, people are being killed in South Central Los Angeles in drive-bys, and there is such violence now amongst the young. I think that Agrón was one of the first episodes of what seemed to be senseless violence at the time, but in fact was the consequence of racism, of lack of attention and opportunities. There is a sociologist by the name of Cohen who wrote about the underculture. You now, the other culture which is the subculture which exists in every city, and there are people who are living in a different world with different rules and different reactions than ours and we pretend that this isn’t so. We pretend that they don’t exist. We pretend that there’s no impact in our lives in what they do. But people see homelessness every day, they see people eating from a garbage can and no one goes to this person and says, “Don’t do that, let me buy you a dish of food.” I don’t care what people say, “No, that’s not affecting me,” or “the hell with him or her, who knows if it isn’t their fault.” We diminish every day with that. Allowing that to happen, I think, diminishes a city and diminishes the individual every day. So, what happened with Salvador Agrón at the time was sort of blamed on a murderous streak in this kid when in fact it just was a sort of wake-up call that we did not listen to. We didn’t respond. We did not pay attention. As a result, you have the levels of violence that you have today. Today it is so common, but in 1959 the killing of those two kids in that playground was shocking. And it shocked not only the United States, it shocked everyone everywhere. Like I said, I read about it in Panamá. And what the play talks about is not only the…not glamorizing at all the episode, but exploring what impact it had on the lives of everyone who was around it at the time.
BP: It really sounds like a fascinating project.
RB: And it’s also an opportunity to hear Latin sounds on Broadway. Which I don’t know when was the last time that happened. And certainly when was the last time you had a Latino playing a lead on Broadway. There’s Chita Rivera, but they’re not common. So it’s an interesting play. And Paul and I have been friends for quite some years.
BP: So it was a natural thing.
RB: Well, he figured, you know, he said, “Whom do I know who can sing this and who has a name that people, Anglo people also, can relate to.” And Marc Anthony is also in it, Marc Anthony is playing the younger Agrón and I’m playing the older Agrón.
BP: It’s going to be a blockbuster, I think.
RB: Well, we’ll see what happens. One thing I’ve learned in my life is, you know, I’ve been in movies like The Two Jakes with Jack Nicholson that I thought would be the best thing ever and they didn’t quite work.
BP: So one never knows.
RB: You never know.
BP: It sounds like a dream come true, combining acting and singing.
RB: Sure, well I’ve never done that. That’s the other thing that attracted me to it. I’ve done everything but a musical.
BP: Do you see yourself doing more theater?
RB: I’d love to do more theater, but I don’t know…I don’t necessarily want to do musicals. I’d like to do plays. But I’ve never done it, and one reason I’ve never done it is the commitment. I mean, you really have to commit yourself and not do anything else for a whole period of time. I mean, this whole thing is going to keep me…I mean, I just had to turn down a movie with Wim Wenders to do this which really, you know, I really wanted to work with him. So it hurts me not to have been able to do it, but you know….
BP: What does being Ruben Blades afford you, besides money, that you find truly beneficial to you in your life?
RB: The opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, and also people that I have admired from afar. And through these meetings I have an opportunity to expand my knowledge and to confirm the rights and wrongs with a positive effect on my own personality. I mean, I’m friends with people like Carlos Fuentes, who’s an excellent writer and future Nobel prize winner for sure, and that came about because of what I’ve done. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, now Derek Walcott who’s working with Paul on this. Derek, I think, is ninety-three. Nobel in literature. Ella Fitzgerald once called me, “Hey, Ruben” in a plane.
BP: That’s really cool.
RB: Yeah, I know. I thought, she knows me. I get a kick out of these encounters.
BP: That must be really gratifying.
RB: It is, very much so. And to be able to speak to people, remember that there’s a trust that also comes with…I think the way I conducted myself all these years. I’ve been pretty consistent. And I’m also very down to earth so that people feel that they are accessible to me. I mean, it’s very interesting, people call me by my first name when they meet me. Or even people when we’ve never been introduced. They say, “Hey, Ruben, como esta? How are you, Ruben?” Whether it is the doorman down there, or the cab driver. So that is, I think, the best. The sense of access to the world. That is the best. And that, to me, is the most important thing because anything else is…you know, you’re not going to take that. The material stuff, you’re not going to take with you.
BP: My last question is, what music do you listen to these days? What’s in your CD player now?
RB: I tell you, I listen to Brazilian music every time. And then I listen to different groups. Panamánian bands, I listen to the new bands we’re producing in Panamá. But, in general, Copland and Grieg, baroque music. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera. Brazilian music. Groups that are not known here like Editus from Costa Rica. So I listen to a lot of different things. What I do not do, is I don’t listen to radio. I do not listen to radio, I never ever put the radio on, ever, ever. I don’t listen to radio. And I never listen to my stuff unless, every so often, out of the blue, somebody calls and tells me something about a song. Then I put it in and I listen to it and then I go, “Boy, that’s a good record.” Because with Son del Solar, Antecedente and Caminando and Amor y Control, those three records were damn good records. But I pretty much listen to the same things. Brazilian music always. Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Eliz Regina, Quarteto Ency, MPB4, Joao Bosco.
BP: Ruben Blades; singer, writer, composer, actor, now murderer. You’ve done everything. Thank you so much. Descarga wishes you the best and continued success.