“You’re the most popular unknown person that I know,” Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once told Rubén Blades. True, Blades may not be a household name in the US but the Panamanian musician, actor, activist, and politician is one of the most emblematic figures in salsa music.
On Dec. 3, Rubén Blades performed hits from his illustrious career for fans at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia. It was a journey through a discography beginning in the ‘70s and continuing with “Salswing,” this year’s Latin Grammy album of the year
Backed by an orchestra of at least 16 talented musicians, Rubén Blades opened the show with his 1984 song “Decisiones” from the “Buscando America” album.
“How many Pablos are here?” asked Blades following his performance of “Pablo Pueblo.” The reference was to the song’s protagonist. A hard-working man who despite his best intentions can’t climb out of abject poverty or elude the corrupt politics that begat his dire circumstances.
Like you and I, the characters in Rubén Blades’s songs are colorful and complex. This is his music’s appeal. The content is relatable, regardless of your age, societal status, or nationality. In this way, Blades is salsa’s storyteller. An orator who transformed the genre. Prior to Rubén, salsa’s primary ambition was to move dancing feet. Blades turned it into a medium to make people think. His socially charged lyrics have addressed racism, inequality, and justice in Latin America.
Panamanian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, and other flags were waved from the stadium seats as Blades performed “Patria,” “Las Calles,” and “Ligia Elena.” Songs that transcend borders and generations. If Latin American pride was a sound, you could hear it echo throughout EagleBank Arena. It’s no wonder that Rubén Blades was named the 2021 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year.
If you look up multi-hyphenate there should be a picture of Blades. As an actor, he has appeared in films with Redford, Denzel Washington, and De Niro. He has collaborated with Celia Cruz, Linda Ronstadt, and Sting. In 1994 he ran for President of Panamá. A decade later, he was appointed Panamá’s minister of tourism.
It all began in a mid-’70s mailroom. 888 Seventh Avenue was the place. The New York City headquarters of the legendary Fania Records, also known as the Motown of salsa. That’s where a Panamanian kid licking stamps by day, while writing and singing at night, would catch the ear of percussionist and bandleader Ray Barreto.
It wasn’t long before Rubén Blades was making his mark on the era’s white-hot salsa scene. In 1978, Blades penned the classic that will forever be associated with his labelmate and Puerto Rican salsa phenom, Héctor Lavoe. The EagleBank Arena audience erupted when they heard the opening horns for “El Cantante.” A beautiful yet somber narrative about a singer’s life.
It’s probably safe to say that as a salsero, Blades has exceeded his dreams. But, why stop there? “I always wanted to sing big band, and now I have that opportunity,” said Blades. In his signature porkpie hat, he would perform “The Way You Look Tonight.” A song made famous by Frank Sinatra.
“Pedro Navaja,” one of Rubén Blades’s most popular songs, is derived from “Mack the Knife.” Renditions of the swing classic have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and of course, Sinatra. The tragic tale of Pedro Navaja, a street thug who gets his just deserts, is classic Blades storytelling. “Sopresas te da la vida, la vida te da sorpresas,” sang concert-goers, while many danced in the aisles. The song was released in 1978, but much like Blades, it is a timeless classic.
Watch the official music video for “Pedro Navaja” by Rubén Blades on YouTube:
“I wrote this song when I was 30, today I am 73,” said Blades prior to his performance of “Maestra Vida.” During his career, he has released hundreds of songs and nearly 60 albums. He has received 9 Grammy Awards and is a 10-time Latin Grammy winner. He has appeared in over 50 films and television series, including “Fear the Walking Dead.”
If you’re not a salsa fan, you may not recognize Rubén Blades if he passed you on the street. Yet, when you look back at all that he has accomplished, it is undeniable that he is an icon. Maybe, the most popular person you don’t know.
Other highlights from the show included performances of…
- “Plantación Adentro,” Metiendo Mano (1977)
- “María Lionza,” Siembra (1978)
- “Buscando Guayaba,” Siembra (1978)
- “Juan Pachanga,” Bohemio y Poeta (1979)
- “Todos Vuelven,” Buscando América (1984)
- “Amor y Control,” Amor y Control (1992)
- “Ojos de Perro Azul,” Son de Panama (2015)
- “Watch What Happens,” Salswing (2021)
- “Canto Niche,” Salswing (2021)
Here are some photos of Rubén Blades performing at EagleBank Arena on Dec. 3, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Will Colbert.