Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ruben Blades

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During the 150s a man who revolutionized salsa with his incredible political conscious lyrics was born. To be more specific he was born on the 16th of July in 148. He was born into a working family who lived in an old neighborhood in Panama. A mere boy at just four and he knew how to read and write because of his grandmother. His grandmother always stayed in his heart and was the subject to one of his future songs. Ruben Blades grandmother was an early feminist who sent only her daughters to school, she thought it was them, who would need it the most to make their way in life, more than her sons. As a result to Ruben’s grandmothers decision, his mother learned to play the piano, just this fact alone established music in Ruben’s life. Now Ruben’s father was not out of this picture at all, in fact his father was not only a musician, but he was also a jockey, basketball player, detective, and percussionist. At age six, Ruben Blades won a writing contest from his elementary school. Ever since he won that award he never stopped writing again, of course as Blades matured so did his writings and songs which intertwined with politics.

During his childhood, Blades was not really aware of his families financial stability. He said, “I never realized my family was poor until I left my neighborhood.” Not only did he start thinking about his economic problems, but also the country’s political situation with the United States was also becoming more and more difficult. This effected young Rubens life, the led him to think about problems he had never even thought about before. Ruben said, “Up to 164 I had been totally pro Yankee. In tastes, in music, in everything. But the events of January of 64, when the United States refused to raise the Panamanian flag at the Canal Zone opened my eyes and, like me, many of those who had been absolutely pro American started to ask themselves questions of a political and social nature. This situation led to what Ruben called his “Political Awakening.”

After Ruben Blades political awakening, he continued with his studies and entered law school. He went to the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the University of Panama. Going to school Blades was still in tune with his passion for music, so he joined musical groups. One the first groups he joined up with was El Conjunto Latino de Papi Arozomena in 166, then he left the group to join Los Salvajes del Ritmo in 167 and stayed til 16. He performed whenever the chance was open in local places. Now while he was performing and going to school, his professor’s pressured him to give up singing while going to school. Blades did indeed leave the bands, but he never gave up on his passion. Music was instilled in this mans heart.

In 168 he traveled to New York on $0, his brother who worked with an airline helped him out with the ticket. On this first visit to New York City he contacted Pancho Cristal a producer who heard him sing in Panama and he proposed Ruben a recording gig. Ruben was happy to accept and thats how his recording career began. In 170, he traveled to New York to record “De Panama A Nuevo York” with the band of star Pete El Conde Rodriguez.

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When Ruben went back to Panama he found the political situation uptight, intense, and a very sensitive issue; still, he decided he was going to finish law school no matter what. In 17 he was about to graduate but his father, then with the Detectives State Corps, faced a very bad situation where general Noriega, then responsible for the Secret Police, accused a group of Panamanians of trying to assassinate General Omar Torrijos. His father was not directly accused, but his relationship with some of those accused forced the family to flee the country in order to avoid vengeance against them. It also prevented them from having to be involved in the dark schemes Noriega had with the CIA.

Even thought he faced many problems, Ruben Blades remained in the country until he

managed to get his law degree, this was a goal he had to accomplish and follow through with. Once he had his title as a lawyer in his own country and given the impacts his fathers political problems could have had on his career he had to worry about that and the perspective of being a lawyer under a dictatorship on the other hand. Ruben Blades options were to join the group which kept the dictatorial policies of the country, which he was totally against, or to leave for Miami with his family, which was what he did in time.

When Ruben Blades finally made it to Miami, there were no obstacles in his way to set off what would be a great music career. Ruben didn’t last to long in Miami though, he shortly after moved to New York in search of opportunity. New York indeed was the place to be for the “Salsa Scene.” His first job in New York was organizing and carrying the mail for Fania Records. This recording company was “the” place for the “elite” salsa musicians. Even though his job was

set away from the music side, the connection was there. Ruben had contact with some important

individuals of the musical scene in New York, which was very vital for him to get involved with it. Now Ruben was going at it, with keeping in touch with these people and just sticking to it, then his big break finally came through. Ray Barreto was looking for someone to replace the lead vocal in his band. Someone told Ray about Ruben, and how they heard him sing in Panama, and that he might be the man he was looking for. Ray then set up an audition for Ruben to hear this awesome voice he was hearing so much of. The audition went very well and Ruben then quit his Fania job and joined Barreto’s group immediately. This big break was the start of Ruben’s great career as a professional musician.

When Barretto left to form a fusion concert band, Blades stayed with his former musicians renamed Guarare for a short while, as well as appearing on the Barretto Live Tomorrow, the

debut set by Barrettos new band. He composed and sang lead vocals on Willie Colóns hit track El Cazangero, featured on his 175 set The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. The song won him the Composer Of The Year award in the 176 Latin NY magazine poll. Blades supplied songs for a number of bands and artists during the 70s, including Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Rodriguez Y La Compañia, Cheo Feliciano, Conjunto Candela, Tito Rodríguez II, Tito Puente, Roberto Roena, Tito Gomez, Hector Lavoe and Pete El Conde Rodriguez. Twelve original recordings of his compositions by other artists were collected on 181s Interpretan A Ruben Blades. In 176 he joined the Fania All Stars, making his debut with them on that years Tribute To Tito Rodriguez. He continued as a member until 180. Three years earlier, he sang lead and chorus on Larry Harlows acclaimed salsa suite La Raza Latina.

In 176 Ruben had solved his inevitable immigration problems, he then became the vocalist replacement of Hector Lavoe, one of the greatest salsero’s of all time, who had left the Willie Colon band. Together both the bandleader and Ruben started what eventually would represent the most important change Caribbean music has experienced in all its history.

History indeed was going to be made. You see, Ruben Blades was a writer and a singer, this was a powerful combination. Not only was Ruben all these things, he also integrated his political side and created a new sound to salsa. On his first LP with Colón, Metiendo Mano, two of Ruben Blades songs Plantación and Pablo Pueblo stood out and had a tremendous impact amongst salsa fans as well as with the musicians who interpreted them.

The following record, Siembra, expands on the musical and social vision of Ruben Blades. The impacts of the song Pedro Navaja topped all records a song of its style ever achieved, turning into one of the most representative themes of Latin American music of all time.

The LP sold more than a million copies and was first place on all the Spanish speaking countries charts and also those of the United States. This LP reached gold and platinum in most of its distribution locations.

Pedro Navaja opened salsa to a world which didn’t understand or like what salsa originally was. People didnt like salsa because they thought of it as low projection, vulgar music. People then started to realize the enormous influence it could have on all social levels. Salsa remained behind its own reality, wiping out the notion that this was only oblivion music unaccountable even within the society where it developed. Now people knew though, that salsa could have meaning, and a beautiful message behind it.

The publics reaction was very positive. It started to understand the way Ruben wanted to revolutionize salsa and society together. Ruben said, “This was a spontaneous manifestation. We had no support on the part of the industry. We were not a creation. The whole thing was made possible thanks to the reaction of people who bought the record and made it possible for us to continue to make records.”

After being with the Willie Colon group for six years, in 18 Ruben Blades decided it was time to go solo. Ruben formed his own group which would allow him to create his own musical ideas in further depth. Ruben was out to explore his feelings and put them out through his music. He explored salsa in a more direct fashion through its texts. He started Seis del Solar, a group based on experimentation. He tried to move away from typical salsa by eliminating the brass section and utilizing certain keys closer to rock. He recorded Agua de Luna with the group, this song was inspired by a series of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. With Seis del Solar he was awarded a Grammy that showed the much recognition and acceptance needed

for his innovative theories with Caribbean popular music.

The group which Blades created kept unfolding and developing, and eventually turned into Son del Solar. Blades continued to explore the problems of Society within Latin America through his music. Ruben Blades added a brass section to give the songs more speed and movement. Ruben Blades again got recognized for his special and unique salsa with another Grammy.

Ruben Blades was a pioneer of his time. He tried to universalize his music and tried to destroy stereotypes. He did all this by incorporating social issues, music, and his past experiences. Ruben said, “I do not believe in the notion that one is condemned to do something because he looks in a certain way or speaks a certain language. To me, music is a universal thing, and I have always been interested in the directions offered me by music in English, directions I could not find, concretely in terms of construction, with the Afro-Cuban rhythms Id always worked with. I also wanted to leave testimony of the meeting of urban tropical music with rock n roll.” Genius is what comes to mind when thinking of Ruben Blades. He was just a simple minded Panamanian boy who loved music. He took in his surroundings and society, and expressed them through music.

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