One on 1: Ruben Blades Heads Back For More
Updated: 02/08/2010 06:37 PM
By: Budd Mishkin
Grammy Award winner Ruben Blades has sold millions of albums, been in more than 30 films and served in government, yet is still an original force in a city saturated with similar talents. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
He doesn't really have a problem if you say 'Blah-Days,' but his grandfather came from St. Lucia and had an English passport. So the name is Blades, Ruben Blades.
Budd Mishkin: Did you get a lot of grief from people who didn't know that story?
Ruben Blades: Here! Only here!
Budd Mishkin: So what kind of grief did you get?
Ruben Blades: People thought that I was trying to make myself pass for a North American, and I keep thinking, and then some other people, I mean, I really got upset about the fact that a lot of people telling me how to pronounce my name.
Ruben Blades has always pursued his passion. When others wanted him to play dance music, he wrote songs about hardship and tragedy. At the height of his career, he left show business to attend Harvard Law School. And when he felt that he was getting too comfortable, he returned to his native Panama first to run for president, and later to serve as Minister of Tourism.
"It's like people asking me, 'Well, what do you do?' And I go, 'When?' And they go, 'Whaddaya mean, when? What do you do?' And I go, 'I do a lot of things,'" says Blades.
Blades and his wife are back living in New York after he served five years as Panama's Minister of Tourism.
NY1 recently met up with him at one of his old favorite hangouts -- La Carridad on Broadway. Blades is playing music again, though in concert, he has not always been fond of performing his best known songs.
"People don't understand you're an artist. You're not a record player. Cause you're sitting there, and they're going, 'Hey, play this!' or 'Play that!' And you go, 'I'm not a CD player,'" says Blades.
Now his shows feature songs written throughout his career. Many of Blades' songs have an interesting juxtaposition -- upbeat melodies in major keys combined with serious and occasionally tragic lyrics.
"It throws a lot of people off. You hear the melody and you think it's 'La Cucaracha' singing. And then you go, 'Oh my God,'" says Blades.
Blades says he initially got into politics because singing about people's struggles wasn't enough. He wanted to enact real change.
"Most people when they leave public office, are very disappointed. I came out of there believing and knowing the process works," recalls Blades.
His five year cabinet position in Panama came to an end in 2009 when a new administration came into power. But Blades says there's another reason he has returned to music and movies -- money.
"I didn't use drugs, I didn't have 900 women with 10,000 children, drinking or being irresponsible," says Blades. "So I saved and invested, but I needed the liquidity. The liquidity was given to me by the tours, by the albums, and by doing movies. So when I stopped that, I had a problem. So I had to come back to work."
Ruben Blades was raised in Panama, but he says he really grew up in New York City.
"I had my first real test of character in this town. I made my first dreams come true in this town," recalls Blades.
His independent streak was shaped early on by influences as diverse as singer Frankie Lymon, French writer Albert Camus and his family.
Ruben Blades: My grandmother was a vegetarian in the 30s!
Budd Mishkin: Wow, did they even have the word back then?
Ruben Blades: I remember going into her room in the mid-50s and she was practicing yoga!
He was already a musician and a lawyer in Panama when he arrived at Fania Records in New York in the mid 1970s with a job in the mailroom.
"Walked in, spoke to the accountant, and remembered that I had left my guitar at the Port Authority. So I had to immediately -- this is the first impression they got of me -- I thought I was gonna get fired. I told the guy, 'I'm gonna be right back' and I left," says Blades.
Blades eventually started making music for Fania. He wanted to broaden what he saw as the traditional boundaries of salsa by writing songs from a global view with socially conscious themes.
"At the beginning it was like, it was divided," recalls Blades. "It was a 'Who the hell does he think he is, coming here with this?' Or 'I don't understand what he's saying.' Or "Why doesn't he do this?'"
Blades was paired with trombonist Willie Colon. Their first album did well, and then their second album, Siembra, sold millions of copies around the world.
"The songs were stories, so that my grandmother who doesn't dance salsa liked the story. Just she got the record. The guy on the left got the record, the guy on the right got the record. The working guy, the CEO. Everybody got the record," says Blades.
What Blades didn't get, in his mind, was paid -- at least not properly.
He eventually sued Fania Records and its founder Jerry Masucci.
"I said, 'Jerry, you know I'm a lawyer. I mean, you're an attorney as well. Show some courtesy, man. You think I just went through law school five years and came outta there just like with a diploma just because I wanted to please my mother?'" recalls Blades. "I make a little differentiation between being grateful for the opportunity and seeing the guy running around in a Rolls Royce while we have to pass the hat to bury so and so because they didn't have money that should have been theirs."
His popularity grew and he had crossover appeal, with success beyond the Latin music world. But in the early 1980's, he gave a speech to students at Harvard, and was convinced to apply to its law school.
His family congratulated him, but how about his bandmates who counted on him for work?
"They didn't go, like, 'Oh! Wonderful!' It's like, 'What?!' And then I gotta call the guy who books us. I remember the image was, 'The phone will never ring again,'" says Blades.
Early on during his time at the school, Blades wrote a letter to a friend who had also gone to Harvard.
"I wrote to him, and I said 'I'm gonna take fencing, I'm going to do this.' And wrote back saying, 'All you're gonna do is wish you were somewhere else,'" recalls Blades.
After Harvard, he resumed a long film career and returned to music.
Many of his songs dealt with struggle and hardship and by the early 90's, there was a problem.
"I had money in the bank. I wasn't struggling. And I thought, 'There's a contradiction here, so how do I solve that? It has to be through political work," says Blades.
Ruben Blades has chosen to walk down many paths in his life -- music, movies, academics, politics but not parenting. He remembers growing up in Panama, watching his mother shelve her musical dreams to raise a family.
"And I thought to myself, I wanna try to do all the things that I can." So that was one reason I didn't have any kids. And I knew it then," says Blades. "And it's not something that I now say that I regret. I knew I was gonna go in so many directions that it woulda been very irresponsible of me."
As he resumes his music and movie career and life in New York, there are plans for an autobiography and another trip back to school.
Budd Mishkin: And the next time you go to grad school, they won't be so surprised.
Ruben Blades: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I mentioned it to some of them, "Ya know, I'm gonna get my Ph.D." And they said, "Oh, that's great!"
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