Rubén Blades, born on July 16, 1948 in Panama, is a jack of all trades but best known for being one of the giants of salsa and Latin-American music. As a singer-songwriter, he’s performed and recorded with many of salsa greats including Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, and Willie Colón on the way to becoming a force on his own.
Blades grew up in a middle class neighborhood and was the son of musicians. His mother was Cuban and moved to Panama and was a singer, piano player, and actress. His father was a percussionist turned police officer. Rubén’s early influences drew from both salsa and rock ‘n’ roll. He performed music with local bands on his way to becoming a lawyer.
He studied political science and law at the national University of Panama and later obtained an international law degree at Harvard. He performed legal work for the Bank of Panama before going to the United States in 1974. After a brief stint in Miami, he headed to New York City which was still the middle of a booming salsa scene.
He landed a job in the mail room at the famed salsa Fania record label. He worked writing songs and soon had his opportunity to become one of the leading vocalists at Fania. He received his big break when he replaced Tito Allen as the main vocalist for Ray Barretto’s band. Soon after that, he took the opening in Willie Colón’s band after Colón and Hector Lavoe split. Their collaboration would last 6 years hitting its high point in 1978, when they released the seminal record Siembra, which became the best selling salsa album of all time. That was also the year that Blades wrote the classic salsa song “El Cantante”, which he gave to Hector Lavoe who took it as his own and made it a hit.
Blades’ music follows complex musical arrangements and his lyrics are smart and carry more meaning than a lot of the danceable salsa music from that era. He wrote about people, society, and life. Some of his songs are politically charged.
In fact, Blades would later run for the Panamanian presidency in 1994. He lost but gained nearly 20% of the popular vote. A decade later, he would be appointed to be Panama’s Minister of Tourism, a post he held for 5 years.
Blades also has written a lot of music for film. And he is an accomplished actor with 38 credits to his name for his work in Movies and on TV. He was never in anything too great though. His most notable films include Predator 2 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
In Latin American music, few have had careers as glorious as Rubén Blades. He is one of the best selling Latin American musicians of all time. Aside from selling millions of records, he has won many awards including multiple Grammys awards in the World Music and Latin categories. Salsa history can not be told without mentioning the name of Rubén Blades.
It should come as no surprise that I would recommend Rubén Blades for those learning Spanish. Aside from Siembra, also check out the albums Buscando América,Escenas, Antecedente, and Tiempos.