David: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. In the world of salsa music, Rubén Blades is one of the greats. His 1978 album, Siembra, a word that means planting or cultivating, remains one of the best-selling salsa albums of all time.
MUSIC - Rubén Blades: Buscando Güayaba
Graciela: Rubén Blades, or as we call him in Latin America, Rubén Blades, though his name is actually Rubén Blades, is one of the most important figures in salsa.
David: Graciela Mochkofsky writes for The New Yorker about Latin American politics and culture.
Graciela: He's an incredibly prolific artist, a writer, a singer, an activist, and a Hollywood actor.
Rubén: Hi, my name is Rudy Veloz, and I have this music that is going to blow you away.
Graciela: They grew up in Argentina, and he really sings for an entire people. We all feel like Blades' or Blades' songs are speaking about the struggles of our own countries. It's not about Panama or Latinos in New York, it's really about all of us. 45 years ago, he released his very first really big album, Siembra, that he recorded with Willie Colón, who was at the center of the salsa movement then. It was the first album that really brought salsa outside of New York and outside of the US and Latin America to the world.
Now, the salsa movement is very much alive and vibrant in Israel, in Taiwan, in Japan. You could say that Rubén Blades or Blades did for salsa music what Bob Marley did for reggae, and he really brought it into the global consciousness.
David: Blades just finished up a summer tour, and he's been working on a memoir. Graciela Mochkofsky sat down to talk with Blades about his life in music, politics, and acting.
Graciela: Okay. [Spanish language] Buenas tardes.
Rubén: Buenas tardes.
Graciela: I always start at the beginning, so I wanted to start in 1969 when you were 21 and you came to New York City for the first time. In that trip, you recorded what I believe was your first album, From Panama to New York, De Panamá a New York, with Pete Rodriguez and His Orchestra. Let's listen for a moment to a song from that album just to get a sense of what it sounded like.
MUSIC - Rubén Blades and Pete Rodríguez and His Orchestra: De Panama A Nueva York
Graciela: Tell us about that album and where it came from.
Rubén: As anything and most of the things in my life, it came as a result of a total unexpected occurrences. I had quit music by that time because the dean of the law school in Panama asked me if I was going to be a musician or a lawyer because somebody saw me playing at a private house with a band called Los Salvajes del Ritmo, and the professor went and told the dean that he had seen me, and that he didn't think that that was a good idea, to have a student singing on the weekends.
Graciela: Was this a very conservative environment?
Rubén: Yes. It was very, very, very, very, very strict. Anyway, then a friend of mine that was a musician, Francisco Buckley, the first recording studio ever to have been built in Panama, [unintelligible 00:04:10] had asked him to come with his band and perform to make sure that everything was in its right position to record. Bush, knowing that I sang, called me and asked me to be a part of the group, and I said, "I can't do that." He said, "No, this is a private thing. No one's going to be there, just the band. Please help us with this." I said, "I'll go and help as a back up." I went.
The owner of the record label had brought somebody from New York called Pancho Cristal, which was one of the biggest producers in New York at the time, to supervise the happenings. The band was three horns in the rhythm section, so eight people. One or two of the guys got lost, so they couldn't play the arrangements. That required then improvisation. Benito Guardia, who was the piano player for Bush said, "Rubén, let's do El Raton," which was a very popular song from Cheo Feliciano at the time, and I did it. Pancho Cristal was at that moment in the cabin.
When he heard my voice, he ran out and went to me because at that time, my voice sounded very much like the sound of the voice of Jose Cheo Feliciano, who was a recording star, and he was stunned. He asked me if I ever wanted to record an album, and I said, "No, not now. I can't do music." The thing is, he said, "Look, if you ever get to New York, call me," and he gave me his number. Then, in Panama, in 1968, we had had the military coup. One of the first things they did, the military did, was to close, shut down the university. Now, my mother was very afraid that I was going to join any of the movements and--
Graciela: As a guerilla? Guerrillero?
Rubén: She was concerned that I was going to join. She came up with this notion like if I wanted a holiday for my birthday, she wanted to send me to New York. I called Pancho Cristal, that producer that I had met the year before, and then he said, "Oh, yes, come over, and I'll record you." Then we recorded this, basically, salsa movement. That's how this album got done. I left New York, went back to Panama. The University was reopened. I went back to law school.
Graciela: You finished your degree there.
Rubén: I finished my degree. I never got involved in music again until the album came out, I believe, in 1970.
Rubén: I didn't even know about it when it came out.
Graciela: It didn't come out in Panama. It only came out here.
Rubén: In Panama, it was released in Panama. The first song of the album was a song I had written about a guerilla fighter who is murdered by the army.
Graciela: Juan González.
Rubén: Juan González. In order not to be arrested, I thought I can deflect the whole notion by saying that these events were occurring in a mythical place. I said like, [Spanish language]. This is all fiction. I'm doing this, this is fiction. [Spanish language] This looks like Che Guevara, it's just a coincidence.
Graciela: You didn't settle in New York then. As you said, you came back to Panama.
Graciela: You got your law degree, but you ended up coming back to the US in 1973 to Florida, where your parents were.
Rubén: My father was accused by Noriega, who was then a colonel. He was accused by Manuel Antonio Noriega, my father being involved in a plot to kill him.
Graciela: Oh, wow.
Rubén: My mother took my family--
Graciela: Was that the truth?
Rubén: I don't think so. I don't think it was the truth, but my father was a detective. He was working with the DEA. DEA had just started. The DEA was using my father in Panama as a contact and investigator because my father was one of the few Panamanian detectives who spoke English.
Rubén: The fact that I think the DEA was closing in on Noriega made him want to get rid of it. In 1974, I graduated from law school. I was working with people in jail at the time. I finished my thesis. I presented it and I was approved. I decided to leave because I didn't see no point of being a lawyer under a military dictatorship. I went to Florida, and my family was having a lot of trouble. My mother was working in Florida. My father could not get a job. I had three small brothers.
My diploma was not accepted by the Florida Bar, so I didn't know what to do. I felt useless. I didn't know what to do. Then all of a sudden, I thought of calling Fania Records, which was the biggest salsa label at the time. I called and I offered myself as a writer and a singer, and they said no to both. Then I said, "Well, do you have any jobs?" Then they said, "Well, as a matter of fact, we just had an opening today in the mail office." I said, "Well, what does that mean? What are the chores?" They explained it to me and I said, "I'll take it."
When Barretto's band broke for the second time, Tito Allen, a wonderful, great local singer, left the band. Barretto had to find another singer. Somebody told him that I sang. Then he came to the mailroom to ask me if it was true that I sang. Then he interrogated me for a while, for like an hour, trying to understand what it was that I was doing there. Finally, he gave me a date for an audition, and I went. He hired Tito Gómez, who had been working with La Sonora Ponceña, Papo Lucca in Puerto Rico. Excellent singer, Tito.
Rubén: He hired me as well. He had two singers in case that one singer left, the other one was still there.
Graciela: This is how you started, really.
Rubén: That's how I started full-time as a musician in 1974, '75, I'm not sure.
Graciela: Right. From the start you were politically engaged and you sang about political topics. You talk about your writing points about what was happening in Panama when you were in high school. Juan Gonzalez, the song you referred to in your first album, is about the death of a guerilla, a guerrillero. Pablo Pueblo from 1977 is about this poor man who comes home and tired and hopeless after working all day. The politicians he voted for have never made his life better. Here's a bit of Pablo Pueblo for those who haven't heard it.
MUSIC - Rubén Blades: Pablo Pueblo
Graciela: You've written songs about class, about the struggles of people, about dictatorships and revolutions, about the desaparecidos in Latin America, et cetera, but you've always rejected the label of political singer or protest singer and you'd never want to be seen as somebody who sings political songs.
Rubén: Because political songs are propaganda, by definition. If you start singing about political ideology, you're not an artist. You're doing propaganda, basically. I try to be as close to a newspaper person as I can. Of course, you can't really say that your objective by writing songs that reflect a point of view, you have a point of view, but you can be balanced and you have to be careful in how you write it so it doesn't become a lie.
Basically, what I thought at the time was that music, and especially salsa music, was creating what did not exist at the time, and I did not see it at the time, which was this excuse or this vehicle for total strangers to meet and all of a sudden share a common ground. Imagine that incredible possibility of having all these people who come from all these different walks of life in one place. Okay, so you can dance. Well, let's think to enhance the experience you're having right now, which is a contact. You're touching a total stranger to you in sometimes intimate ways because it's a contact dance.
All of a sudden, I'm talking to you about a priest that was killed, or I'm talking to you about your mother that died of cancer, or I'm talking to you about the girlfriend that went away because you were Black and she was white, or I'm going to talk to you about the gay guy who doesn't dare to say that he's gay because he may have reprisals. Some people have never heard songs that touched politics or political aspects before. Some of them got very upset with me because they called me a communist because I was not using music only to escape.
They wrongly interpreted the direction of my criticism and ascribed it to a political ideology, which really pissed me off because I was always trying not to go there.
Graciela: I was remembering Charly García, the Argentine pop star.
Rubén: Oh, yes, I do.
Graciela: He once said those questions, what advice would you give to young artists or young musicians? He said that the only piece of advice he had was to not make compromises at the start because people always thought that you had to compromise at the beginning to be able to be famous. He said, by the time you're famous, you're not going to be able to walk out of that box. It's too late.
Rubén: Absolutely. Very smart. My goal from the beginning was not to be famous, to become famous or rich. My goal from the beginning was to communicate, to present a position and create a conversation.
David: Singer Rubén Blades talking with Graciela Mochkofsky. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. Stick around. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. We'll continue now with the salsa legend, Rubén Blades, who sat for a long interview this summer with Graciela Mochkofsky of The New Yorker. This year, Blades won his 11th Grammy Award. He's credited with bringing about a kind of socially aware songwriting to salsa. He's also been a government official and a popular actor. He was a lead actor on Fear the Walking Dead. Rubén Blades continues looking for ways to push the bounds of his music.
Graciela: Let's talk about jazz. I attended your performance in 2014 with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Rubén: Yes, that was great.
Graciela: That was great. I remember the beginning was mostly jazz. Then you started singing some of your classics, and then all these people who had been restless in their rooms, they just finally could dance.
Graciela: Everybody just jumped off their seats and started dancing on the sides of LC, it was wonderful. I believe that was the-- Correct me if I'm wrong, but if I understand it correctly, that was the origin of SALSWING!, this project of three albums that you recorded in 2021 with Roberto Delgado, the Panamanian big band leader. SALSWING! is about the connections between Afro-Cuban music and jazz. Again, convergence and connection. I wanted to listen to one song. I hope you find the choice right, but I chose The Way You Look Tonight.
MUSIC - Rubén Blades: The Way You Look Tonight
Graciela: It's so gorgeous, it's always so joyful.
Rubén: The thing, again, to bring it into context, my father is a gambling man. One day, he showed up in the house with a record player. It was the biggest record player I've ever seen. With the record player, it came some albums. These albums were some of the songs that I picked when I did the SALSWING! There was an album.
Graciela: Oh, that's right.
Rubén: There was a Tony Bennett record. There was, of course, a Sinatra album. There was a Sammy Davis Jr. album. I learned to sing on top of the records, and that's why I lost my accent singing. As a matter of fact, I learned how to breathe because I started mimicking Sinatra so that I ended up learning how to breathe just by following what he was doing in his records but the point is that the jazz-Latin connection is an old one.
Rubén: It's a very old one. In Panama, you have from Luis Russell that ended up being Louis Armstrong's bandleader. Danilo Pérez, who played with Wayne Shorter. Carlos Henriquez, who's the bass player for Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, approached me to say, "Would you like to do some shows with us?" We did, and it worked.
Graciela: At one point between 2004 and 2009, you interrupted again your career as a musician for those five years to take on the role of Minister of Tourism in Panama. This was after you had run for president of Panama in 1994, which you didn't win, obviously. When you came back from Panama, you took on an acting role in Fear the Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic TV series, the spin-off of The Walking Dead, which lasted eight seasons, I think it's coming to an end now.
Graciela: And you said that you did it as a way to go back to relevancy. You said people were asking, "Is he dead?" [chuckles]
Graciela: I don't know if that's true.
Rubén: No, it is true.
Graciela: Is it?
Graciela: This was not your first acting role. You've acted in 30 movies and you've been in Hollywood for a long time, but I wanted you to talk a little bit about this decision to be a killer in a zombie movie as a way to go back to popular culture.
Rubén: There were many things. One of them was I went back to public service because I hope to inspire the young in my country, Panama, to become involved in politics. Most people don't think at least in Panama to become involved in politics because they consider it that it's corrupt and it's horrible. I tell them it's corrupt and horrible because people like us don't participate. You have to eliminate the space for the corruption. For five years, I didn't do any singing or writing or touring or doing movies or anything. For five years, I just stayed in the public service.
I did not want to go first to be a Minister of Tourism. I wanted to work in the correctional system in Panama because that's what I had been involved with when I was in law school. The president felt that I would be more helpful in an area that was going to contribute to the national growth product, and they needed somebody there that can push it forward. Anyway, once I left Panama, not having recorded and not having done anything, I didn't even have an agent anymore. I needed work. It wasn't just the fact that people were going like, "Where is he?" but it was also-- I was thinking in more practical ways as well.
For instance, to get the medical insurance of screen actor's guilt. I ended up being offered a role in this upcoming, it wasn't a spinoff, but something that sprung from The Walking Dead. What attracted me to the role was that it was the total opposite of me. It was a guy who had worked with the dead squads in Salvador.
Graciela: Daniel Salazar.
Rubén: Daniel Salazar. When the event occurred, and dead people were rising and killing living people, for reasons that have never been totally explained, I can say that about the Trump candidacy. The thing is that his skills ended up becoming the thing to have to survive in this new apocalyptic world. It provided me with that access, not just to audiences in this country, but also worldwide. All of a sudden, you have somebody in Nigeria that maybe doesn't know about Pedro Navaja and all of a sudden, it goes like, "Oh, Daniel Salazar sings? I didn't know that."
Graciela: You've run for president in Panama, but how about your political participation here in the US?
Rubén: I wouldn't do it here because I would have to be a citizen.
Graciela: Oh, you're still not?
Rubén: I'm not a citizen. I'm a resident because if I had become a citizen, then I could not participate in politics in Panama.
Graciela: Of course. You've said that coming back to the US, that Latinos have no political power to speak of because we act like tribes and we don't identify as one people. What did you mean by that?
Rubén: Basically, it'sagain, an interesting scenario when you think about Latin America, you think about really the world. In Latin America, you have white, Black, brown. You can't really say that one group represents all groups because it's not true. That's one very important difference. The second is that people who, like myself, ended up in this country, came running from dictatorship or a scenario where we didn't have opportunities. When people arrive to the United States, most people don't want to talk about politics.
They feel, "You know what? I'm not going to rock the boat and I'm not going to say anything. I'm just going to be quiet." As a result of that, we don't have the political representation and/or power and/or recognition. We're not even considered in films.
Graciela: I think it's 4% of all acting roles that are played by Latinos.
Rubén: But then when you go and see who goes most to the movies? Latinos. Who eat more popcorn? Latinos.
Graciela: I don't know if that's true.
Rubén: Who drink more soda? If we're the top ones in going to the movies, we're sure eating more popcorn than anybody else. [crosstalk] But I'm saying where are we? When are we going to break away from the roads of narco traffic kind of made illegal alien hoodlum?
Graciela: Do you feel that you were able to break away from that?
Rubén: I was able to say no, and I'll never forget, I lost a role in a movie called Q&A, and I turned it down because it was a drug dealer. As a career move, it was not a wise move because if I had done that role, which was a lead, I maybe would've been seen for something else. I could say no because I had the music. I'm not criticizing those who need to work because they need to support themselves. I had an option that was brought to me by music, so I said no.
Graciela: My second question about staying relevant. You do a lot of collaboration with younger musicians, not just across genres, but also with people who are much younger and with much shorter careers. If you play with Calle 13, with Natalia Lafourcade, I love your song with Natalia Lafourcade. If you ask my son who is 12 about Rubén Blades, he will tell you that Blades is the guy who played with Stay Homas during the pandemic. [laughs] Stay Homas from stay home, in case people don't know what we're talking about, was a group created during the COVID-19 lockdown in Barcelona.
Three guys who play on their rooftop and invited artists to play with them via their cell phones. All my son's friends, those kids were listening to them on YouTube.
MUSIC - Stay Homas, Rubén Blades: Es Por Ti
Rubén: I thought they were great. Melodically, I love where they go. They're very good musicians on their own right. Through the net, I sent a message, "Hey, guys, I love to do something with you," and then they called me. I saw them again last year in Cruïlla in the festival in Barcelona, and I sang with them live in Barcelona.
Graciela: Oh, that's great. I didn't know that.
Rubén: There's 25,000 people, which is something again, I'm going like, "Oh, these kids going from being in a rooftop singing with a glass and with a can, to all of a sudden, 25,000 people." Their tour was bigger than mine.
Graciela: That's great. [Spanish language] gracias.
Rubén: [Spanish language] Thank you all for listening.
David: Graciela Mochkofsky speaking with Rubén Blades.
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