By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
There are few artists in Latin music — or in any genre, for that matter — as prolific and ubiquitously talented as Rubén Blades. He's a singer and a songwriter. He's an actor. He's even a lawyer and a politician. And if all of that sounds like exaggeration, check his IMDb page for references to movies such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Color of Night, The Devil's Own, and One Man's War. Check his discography for a score of records that have been hits. And check with the Panamanian Board of Tourism to see who the minister is.
But music has always been and always will be that for which Blades is best known. The man is a living legend in that arena, and for good reason. From the time he first appeared in the early '70s, his ass-shaking, hip-breaking, Nuyorican-style salsa has enchanted fans. And though it was cut from the same cloth as that of other heavyweights of the time, such as Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars, Blades's music has always contained that little extra je ne sais quoi. At once cerebral and poetic, his lyrics read like prose that seeks to challenge while simultaneously reveling in the beauty of language. Some call it nueva trova, and that's as good a name as any.
The Panamanian-born singer began his music career with Fania Records, which launched not only him but also a large number of salsa greats, including the aforementioned as well as the incomparable Celia Cruz. Blades eventually parted ways with Fania, but his career has remained robust thanks to a myriad of hits, including the salsa classic "Pedro Navaja," inspired by Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife."
There have been many other successes. Blades's 1978 release with Willie Colón, Siembra, is considered a salsa classic, as are 1996's La Rosa de los Vientos and 1999's Tiempos. And 2002 saw Blades release a high-concept album titled Mundo, for which he gathered musicians from around the world to accompany him on an auditory journey across continents and cultures. Genius.