Breaking Barriers: The Story of Rubén Blades
Musicians are powerful individuals. Not only do they have fame and fortune, but they also have the ability to reach out to people and influence them with their music. Meanwhile, there are also those musicians whose power goes beyond the realm of music. They assert their influence on other areas and affect change in the social and political landscape as a result. One of those musicians is Rubén Blades. He is a world-renowned salsa musician from Panama who is famous for his socially relevant songs. He is also a significant figure in politics that helped shaped the government of his country. Rubén Blades broke the barriers of both music and politics to become one of the most prominent figures in the history of Panama.
For Rubén Blades, the interest in music came before his interest in politics. He was born in 1948 in Panama to Rubén Dario Blades, Sr. and Anoland Benita (Alvarez-Smith 78). His love for music became evident when he was a teenager. At fifteen years of age, he was the lead singer for the Saints, the band of his brother Luis. It was then that Blades developed a passion for music; he started to write and perform his own compositions. While studying political science in the University of Panama, he continued to make his name known in the music scene. Blades soon left the Saints to travel to New York, where he met Willie Cólon. For half a decade, Blades and Cólon were musical partners; they collaborated on some albums and went on tour. Afterwards, Blades proceeded with his career without Cólon and formed his own band named Seis del Solar (Alvarez-Smith 78).
Blades made a mark in the salsa music scene through sheer talent and socially relevant lyrics. There is no doubt that he was a talented individual. As a singer, he is best known for his distinctive voice. Nonetheless, his talent is not limited to singing. He can also play the guitar and also write songs (Manuel 96). Blades is not only a vocalist, he is also instrumentalist and composer. These talents were the keys to his success as a celebrated salsa musician. His record entitled “Siembra” was a hit to both the critics and listening public; it sold 400,000 copies (Manuel 96).
However, it was Blades’ skill as a lyricist that truly made him an influential musician in Panama. Back then, most songs had lyrics that featured either soap opera or dance themes (Manuel 96). Blades deviated from the norm and showed his originality through social themes. His songwriting was said to have been influenced by authors such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Blades’ lyrics reflected the difficulties which common people faced. His song “Juan Pachanga,” narrates the story of a man whose outside appearance hides the sadness he feels inside (Manuel 97). Blades is also known for writing about the plight of the Latino workers. In “Pablo Pueblo,” he revealed the dull and repetitive life of a worker. Poverty is another common theme in Blades’ songs. Against the backdrop of life in the barrio, Blades told the story of a gangster and a prostitute who kill each other in “Pedro Navaja.” His song “Adán Garcia” was about a jobless man in Panama who was forced to rob a bank with the use of a water gun which belonged to his son; the title character was killed by the police (Rodríguez 88). It was songs like these which made Blades a formidable force in the music scene.
It is important to note that Blades had helped people throughout his musical career through his songwriting. He had created a number of controversial songs which were political in nature, but these were not the ones which were most meaningful. The most significant songs in his collection were those which were about the experiences of Latin America as a whole (Manuel 97). Blades sought to create songs which not only told the stories of Panamanians, but of all Latinos in general. According to him, he wanted to write “a folklore of the city—not only one city, but of all the cities in Latin America” (qtd. in Manuel 97). In “Numero seis,” Blades narrated about the wait at a train station (Manuel 97). In “Te están buscando,” he described the dilemma of an illegal alien who is tracked by authorities. Through his songs, Blades conveyed the universal experiences of Latin Americans; as a result, he helped established the identities of Latinos throughout the world (Rodríguez 86). This was his greatest contribution as a musician.
Blades successfully broke barriers. Though he was essentially a salsa musician, he dabbled in other genres such as meringue, reggae and rock (Manuel 98). He expanded his musical horizon by reaching over to mainstream music. While he started recording in Spanish, he attempted to reach the English-speaking Latino market by releasing English songs. He also became an actor (Manuel 98). However, the most notable crossover Blades did was that from entertainment to politics. He broke the barriers of music and film to be involved in Panamanian politics.
Blades’ passion for politics began in college. His stay at the University of Panama as a political science student gave him the opportunity to develop his interest (Alvarez-Smith 78). While music became his main priority, his inclination to politics did not disappear. As a musician, Blades would compose songs with political themes. In fact, the political character of his compositions caused his music to be banned from several radio stations in Miami. He had become so preoccupied with politics that he left the music scene for a while to study law in Harvard (Alvarez-Smith 78).
Blades’ involvement in politics was triggered by the attack of Panama by the United States. In 1989, United States President George W. Bush called for an offensive against Panama in an effort to remove Manuel Noriega from office (Manuel 98). Noriega was a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had been involved in drug trafficking; at the time of the invasion, he governed Panama as a military dictator. The onslaught on Panama resulted in countless casualties and massive destruction. The damage was estimated to be worth two million dollars. Also, the invasion led to the rise to power of Guillermo Endara, who assumed the leadership of Panama after Noriega. Unfortunately, Endara proved to be a worst than his predecessor. During his term, corruption became rampant and drug trading became more prevalent compared to Noriega’s time. One of those who were affected by the invasion and its outcome was Blades.
Blades sought to assert his influence and affect change in the government of Panama. In the 1990s, he officially entered the political arena in his home country (Alvarez-Smith 79). In 1993, he returned to Panama and decided to run for president. He wanted to save his country from another dictatorial regime and prevent widespread corruption, so he established an independent political party called Papa Egoro. Unlike other opposition parties, Papa Egoro did present alternatives to the programs of the government. His popularity as a world class musician and actor allowed Blades to acquire immense support. The party appealed mostly to young people in Panama, as well as citizens who wanted a change from the traditional politics that dominated the nation for years. Unfortunately, Blades’ bid in politics was shaky from the beginning. While he pursued the presidency with the noble intention, the intention was not enough to guarantee success and victory. The party itself was flawed; the members were remarkably different in terms of ideology. Such differences undermined the strength and unity of the party. The party also chose not to be involved in alliances and coalitions, a decision which proved detrimental as it isolated them in the political landscape. More importantly, Blades was indifferent towards politics. He may have graduated with a law degree, but it was not enough to help him win the presidency. Since the 1994 presidency was his first attempt in politics, he was still inexperienced as a politician. Despite the strong support from Panamanians, Blades was not victorious in his presidential bid. His fame was not enough to win the presidency. He only placed third in the 1994 Panamanian presidential elections. It was Ernesto Pérez-Balladares who won the elections that year. Blades was dejected over his failed presidential bid. He resumed his musical career after his political loss (Alvarez-Smith 79).
How has Blades helped Panamanians and influenced his government at the same time? As a musician, he was able to reach out to the Latin American community. Through his dedication to social justice and relevant lyrics, he made his music relatable not only to his fellow Panamanians, but to other Latinos as well. Latin Americans may constitute a minority and be displaced in society, but Blades was able to establish the identities of Latin Americans through his music. In a sense, his music united the Latin American community. Hence, the music Blades produced was not merely for entertainment; it fulfilled a higher purpose. Blades created music to speak to and influence Latin Americans all over the world.
As a politician, Blades was able to shape the political history of Panama. While Blades did not actually become a politician, his presidential bid was still important for Panamanian politics. Blades’ participation in the 1994 presidential elections changed the political milieu of Panama. His political ambition and efforts allowed Panama the opportunity to choose their leader without being limited by military influence; after 26 years, Panamanians finally had the chance to exercise their right to vote in the presidential elections without the control of a dictator (Alvarez-Smith 79). Blades may not have failed to become the president of Panama, but he succeeded in influencing the government through his bid alone.
Rubén Blades was a musician who did not limit himself to a specific genre; he even became an actor. Through his music, he was able to influence the Latin American community through his intelligent and socially significant lyrics. He was also a politician who influenced the Panamanian government through his presidential bid. Indeed, Rubén Blades was truly an outstanding individual who broke barriers.
Alvarez-Smith, Alma. “Blades, Rubén.” Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture. Eds. Cordelia Candelaria and Peter J. Garcia. California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. 78-79.
Manuel, Peter Lamarche. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. “Encrucijadas: Rubén Blades at the Transnational Crossroads.” Latino/a Popular Culture. Eds. Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero. New York: NYU Press, 2002. 85-101.