Ruben Blades

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Ruben Blades: Salsa Singer and Social Activist (Hispanic Biographies)

Barbara C. Cruz (1997)

Enslow Publishers


This 128 page book is part of a series about ‘inspirational Hispanic figures’ and aimed at juvenile readers – others in the series by the same author are about actor Raul Julia and artists Frida Kahlo & Jose Clemente Orozco. This volume takes a look at the life of Ruben Blades from his early years right through to his third Grammy award in 1997 for La Rosa de los Vientos.

Why you might buy it:

This is one of only two texts in English about Ruben Blades -the other is a slightly shorter book by Betty Marton, also aimed at the juvenile reader, which was published in 1992. Presentation, including a handful of photographs and line drawings, is reader friendly. Despite being written for younger readers this book doesn’t particularly suffer from coming across as “a kids book” – in fact it wouldn’t take much to turn this into a longer, more detailed adult version. The writing is clear, concise and contains quite a lot of information as well as a few interesting anecdotes from Blades. The author has used a good variety of sources, as evidenced by the Chapter Notes which in themselves may provide some with a useful starting point for further reading about Blades.

Why you might leave it:

As it is aimed at younger readers it lacks any real depth and many interesting aspects of Blades life are mentioned but not really explored as they might be in a text aimed at adult readers. It is also pretty short and probably won’t take you more than a couple of hours to read from cover to cover. This is also becoming a reasonably hard to find volume and the price, based on its relative scarcity, may well make this a hard to justify purchase. You may well wish to spend a few hours looking at the excellent Maestra Vida website instead.

Contents:

Acknowledgments
1. I want to sing
2. Growing up in Panama
3. Coming to America
4. Salsa with a message
5. Seis de Solar
6. Hollywood calls
7. Papa Egoro
8. Today and tomorrow
Chronology
Selected films, sound recordings and TV programs
Chapter notes
Further reading
Index

Selected extracts (from):

2. Growing up in Panama

His father’s father, Reuben Blades, was from St. Lucia, a British colony in the Caribbean. He was an accountant and was drawn to Panama by the building of the railroad and the canal. In Panama, he met and married Emma Bosques Laurenza. Because Reuben was from an English speaking island, the original pronunciation of his last name is in English, as in “razor blades”, although most Latinos pronounce it “BLAH-dess”. His grandson Ruben would come to accept both pronunciations. Emma’s husband disappeared after fathering several children with her, including Ruben senior, Ruben’s father. Ruben thinks that his grandfather left “after certain problems involving women”. Even though she was left to raise the family by herself, Rubens grandmother, Emma, was a strong woman who was able to keep the family together.

Ruben’s mother’s father was an American named Joseph Louis Bellido de Luna. He was born in New Orleans and went to Cuba to fight in the Spanish American War. Joseph liked the island so much that after the war he decided to stay and live there. Soon he met his future wife, Carmen Carames, with whom he had twenty-two children. One of their daughters was named Anoland.

Ruben’s mother, Anoland, was a piano player, nightclub singer, and radio actress in Cuba where she was born. She moved to Panama in the 1940s to perform in the nightclubs. One night she caught the eye of Ruben Blades Sr who was playing the bongo drums in the band she was singing with.

3. Coming to America

Then something happened that greatly affected his family. General Manuel Antonio Noriega was the military strongman in the Torrijos government. During this time, Blade’s father was a secret policeman for the government. In 1973 Noriega accused Ruben Sr of working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. Blade’s father denounced the charge as untrue and left Panama with his wife Anoland and their four children. They moved to Miami, Florida, where there was a thriving Latino community. However, because of his job, Blades himself decided to stay in Panama.

Yet, as he continued to play with salsa bands, it was not long before he dreamed of returning to New York and joining the salsa scene. New York attracted Latin musicians, composers and performers from all over the world. In addition to the recording industry and nightclubs that were there, there were also Spanish speaking bodegas (small grocery stores), barrios (Latino neighborhoods), and opportunities for employment.

After two years of working as an attorney, Blades quit his job. In 1974 he decided that New York was where he wanted to be and where he could make the most difference. Blades says:

‘I felt that popular music would play an important role in Latin America. I felt it was an effective way of stating cases, of presenting the truth, the peoples side, because they all had sounds, and those sounds were as important as anything I could do in a court of law’.

4. Salsa with a message

Blades was instrumental in developing one of the varieties of salsa known as salsa conciente. This is salsa with a message. It highlights the social concerns faced by people in the barrios everywhere. There are even some salsa bands called La Justica, La Protesta, and La Conspiracion who, by their very names, suggest their interest in justice, political protest and conspiracy against disempowered groups. Ruben Blades and Willie Colon have written some of the best examples of this type of salsa.

Blades says that 90 percent of the time his songs begin with the lyrics, or words. He says that he has a drawer in which he keeps little bits of paper with words and ideas scribbled on them. ‘Once in a while, I look at them, and if there’s that burst of enthusiasm, I know it’s time to do the song; it’s like they hatch themselves. When I have enough good ones, I call the guys and say “Okay, write the charts and let’s go to the studio”.’

5. Seis de Solar

In 1987 Seis de Solar released Agua de Luna. These songs written by Blades are loosely based on Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s collection of stories. Blades met the author in Mexico in 1985 and they have remained friends since. Garcia Marquez told a friend: “Through Ruben Blade’s songs. I’m going to be 5the singer I never was”. Says Blades of Garcia Marquez: “I love him not because of his skills but because he is an intellectual who likes salsa music – he has kept one foot in the popular culture”.

In creating Agua de Luna, Blades thought it would be interesting to bring together literature and rhythmic music, two forms of culture that he feels have been commonly believed to be opposite. “And,” Blades adds, “I have always thought it was a bunch of crap because even intellectuals need to dance”. He joked with Garcia Marquez that he was going to put a little sticker on the album that said “You have heard the song. Now read the book”. The author got a good chuckle when he heard Blade’s proposal.

6. Hollywood calls

Despite his excellent acting ability, Blades has had a hard time finding quality, suitable roles. For example, when the hit TV series Miami Vice was on the air, Blades was asked to play the role of a drug dealer. He rejected the offer, angrily asking, “When are we going to stop playing the drug addict, the pimp and the whore?” Blades has said that “I could never do that stuff. I’d rather kill myself first”. Over the course of one six-month period, Blades read fifteen scripts for different shows; he was dismayed at the roles available to him. “In half, they want me to play a Colombian coke dealer. In the other half, they want me to play a Cuban coke dealer. Doesn’t anyone want me to play a lawyer?”

7. Papa Egoro

As May 8 neared, Blades made more personal appearances, shaking hands, providing free salsa concerts, and attending Earth Day celebrations. The day before the election, The Miami Herald printed an article with the headline “Too Close To Call”. To make sure that the election would be conducted fairly and honestly, Oliver Stone, Jesse Jackson and former United States President Jimmy Carter were invited as observers. Later, Carter said at a news conference, “about 30 of us decided that we have never in our lives seen an election so perfect as this one just held in Panama.” The election enjoyed one of the best voter turnouts in Panamanian history; 74 percent of those eligible voted.

Official results say that from among seven candidates, Blades placed third, but Blades thinks he really came in second. When asked about how poor peasants could support a multi-millionaire such as Perez Balladares, Blades asserts the belief that most people do not believe that change is possible. So they support the person or party who seems to be the strongest or to have more political pull.

8. Today and tomorrow

Blades declares that “I will never be a superstar. My role is to be different, to do what others won’t do, and, as a result, my fortunes will always fluctuate. I will always be viewed by suspicion by some, though not by all, because I move against the current”.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

School Library Journal by Denise E. Agosto (1998)
A thoughtful biography of the three-time Grammy-winning singer, actor, and activist. Conflicts over the Panama Canal led Panamanian-born Blades to view his musical interest as an outlet for sociopolitical expression. As a young adult, he moved to New York City, quickly rising to prominence in the salsa music scene as the first singer to use this blend of African, Spanish, jazz, rock, and blues music as sociopolitical commentary. Blades’s story is generally well written, but the book becomes bogged down in the middle chapters, describing song lyrics and movie plots in excessive detail. Further, the man’s personal life is largely ignored, with only passing references to his wife. However, his appearance in the 1997 movie The Devil’s Own and his starring role in a new Broadway musical might make this biography a popular choice for report writers. Similar to Betty Marton’s Ruben Blades (Chelsea, 1992), Cruz’s title is more up to date. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs and maps.

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4 responses

9 11 2007
Alison

It’s a decent book, but because nearly all of it comes from other interviews, some errors come through. For example, his grandmother Emma was Colombian and his father was actually born in Colombia but raised in Panama. Also, the legal work he did in Panama was as a law student, and he left the country as soon as he graduated (according to direct quotes I have seen.) Cruz may not realize that there are other Blades families in Panama (“no relation” they say but I don’t believe it) and they use the English pronunciation as his family does.

I’ve sifted through many of the same interviews and articles she cites as sources, and I recognize the quotes outside of their original contexts. Sometimes Cruz cites the Marton book as a source, which bothers me, since the Marton book does not cite any sources in footnotes.

But the historical context is good, and Cruz avoids dramatization for the most part. The Marton book indulges in the “Rubén’s face, always expressive, showed his disappointment” pretense at You Are There which I found annoying.

There was a book published in Colombia called “Yo Rubén Blades” which is nothing but an assemblage of a vast array of quotations, arranged in chapters by chronology or subject area. The very interesting result is something like an autobiography – however it is in Spanish (and probably done without any permission.) Mine is a xeroxed copy, hand-carried from Caracas to Boston by “Uncle José”, with whom I had a rendez-vous in a hotel bar for the exchange of packages…
Alison

29 09 2008
Melanie Blades

There are countless errors in what I read today, really, too many. First of all, my grandfather, Ruben Nathaniel Blades was a British citizen, born in St. Lucia, and the surname is Anglo-Saxon in origin, hence, its pronounciation.

Secondly, my granfather Ruben only fathered one child with my grandmother Emma, and that was my Dad. My grandmother had been married before.

Thirdly, her full name was Emma Andrea Bosquez Aizpuru, not Laurenza as you incorrectly wrote. Laurenza was the surname of her previous husband. She was the daughter of Tomas Bosquez, and Adela Aizpuru. She was the grandaughter of Rafael Aizpuru, an extremely distinguished patriot who signed his name in Panama’s Declaration of Independence from Colombia. My father, Ruben Dario Blades Bosquez was not a “secret policeman”. He was a Civilian Detective, a graduate of the Bureau of Narcotics in Washington D.C. and for a very long time, one of the most experienced and highly qualified investigators Panama has ever had. He also was an outstanding athlete, in Panama’s National Teams for Basketball and Baseball for many years. My maternal grandfather, Joseph Louis Bellido De Luna travelled to Cuba often because the family had business interests there that predated my grandfather. My great-uncle, Juan Bellido De Luna, for example, made history in Cuba. I suggest you research for yourself what the Bellido De Luna’s family political contributions to Cuba’s independence from Spain were.
I continue: My grandfather Joseph did not have 22 children with my grandmother Carmen; That was his third and last marriage; Yes, my mother was one of the children he had with Carmen. I would go on and on but I don’t want to rewrite the book for you, or give you information you should research yourself. I would like for you to do much better when it comes to my brother Ruben and our family and I don’t like to read such extremely innacurate material. If you publish a book about someone, please make sure that what you publish is correct. Otherwise you run the risk of getting comments such as mine, because I happen to know, better than you, facts regarding my family.

13 01 2009
Alex Vasquez

Melanie, I ran into this comment & proud of you for standing up for correcting the information on your family. I went to school with you (Southwest) . Hope to speak to you soon. Alex Vasquez

24 02 2014
Christine Rodriguez

Very well stated Melanie, truth and accuracies is first and vital always! Admire your stance with definite corrections as to the life and times of YOUR family! Kudos for recommending that research should actually take place in person prior to just writing and using quoting material from others, which for the most part is all hear say unless documented by the Blades family themselves! Just an observation, albeit, a little late!

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