José Arteaga, editor of Radio Gladys Palmera, tells that once asked Alex Masucci what the young Rubén Blades was like from the early days in New York. At that time, Masucci I was in charge of some Fania Records bands –The label that his brother Jerry and Johnny Pacheco had founded–, and he had been one of those who had provided accommodation for Blades when he was just another musician full of intentions and dreams. “And what Masucci told me – recalls Arteaga – is that Blades was a tired guy, persistent to die, stubborn, I was saying all day ‘listen to this’, or ‘I just thought of this’, with tremendous intensity. Obviously, a person with that thirst to make his ideas known, and above all, endowed with his immense talent, was never going to give up, he was destined to succeed & rdquor ;.
Young Blades knew it well, knowingly or unknowingly: that when destiny sends it, not even the bravest change it. If you were born for a hammer, nails will fall from the sky.
The boy with the cards
But there were still years to go before he wrote that, perhaps his most memorable handwriting. At the dawn of the 70s Blades was just the Fania mail boy, and it is literal. Like those former newspaper editors who began their careers in the building’s catacombs, Blades had entered the world of music with a post at the Post Office of the then monopoly salsa empire, the label that produced the best, from Willie Colón to Héctor Lavoe, from Ray Barreto to Roberto Roena. This is how the Panamanian tells it in the documentary ‘Yo no me llamo Rubén Blades’ (2018), by his compatriot Abner Benaim, the audiovisual that covers his life since he was a child who walked through the neighborhood in search of buildings with acoustics to sing . For make his voice sound like he’s giving a concert.
–La Fania was the center of everything that was salsa music. It was ‘the’ place. In New York there were Willie Colón, Pacheco, El Conde, Héctor Lavoe & mldr; The orchestras were there. AND I called to see if they employed me as a writer, basically, and they said no, no, no, we don’t need that. And they were almost hanging up and I said: ‘You don’t have a job there whatever it is? Is there something there? ‘ Because I thought, if I go to New York, I’ll somehow sneak up on someone & rdquor ;.
“The miracle would hardly have happened if it had not been for Willie Colón & rdquor ;, says Jaime Andrés Monsalve, musical director of the National Radio of Colombia
In Benaim’s documentary, Blades reflects on time, age and old age. Born in 1948, at the time he was in front of the camera, he was around 70. “Whoever has more past than future, let him organize his time & rdquor ;, he repeats like a mantra. It is what you are doing. Having made a documentary is part of that, because, as he explains, he wants to leave things said his own way, and not for someone else to come later and say them in his own way. He also says that he has already drawn up his will. It is assumed that he gave up the tours, for exhausting, but the stages continue to tempt him and on the 20th another begins. Well, that night, in Oakland, he will take the stage three days after receiving the honorary Grammy awarded by the Latin Academy of the Recording. It seems the right moment for an award of such subtle texture: the Grammy for a lifetime for a man who in the same sentence is able to say that he understands age, and that as you get older you have to get used to assuming another “role & rdquor ;, but that your “theme & rdquor; is that he does not feel old yet. In his mind he does not feel old.
A miraculous encounter
It was not, neither mentally nor physically, when in 1975 Ray Barreto knocked on the door of the Post Office to recruit him as a singer. Blades already had a fame as a composer, but it was thanks to Barreto that he was able to leave the office and go out, so to speak, to get some fresh air. Did it all start there? That’s where it all started, maybe, or maybe it started earlier, in 1970, with his first attempt to break through in New York, Or maybe it started later, when he got together with the partner who finally allowed him to express everything he had inside: the New Yorker of Puerto Rican origin Willie Colón. “The miracle would hardly have happened if it hadn’t been for Willie Colón & rdquor ;, he says. Jaime Andrés Monsalve, musical director of the National Radio of Colombia and knowledgeable scholar of the history of salsa. “The stars aligned – explains Arteaga – and one of those stars was undoubtedly Willie Colón, who helped him express how he wanted his way of seeing things & rdquor ;. If you were born for a hammer, nails will fall from the sky.
Blades started at the bottom, working at the Fania Post Office
Columbus was one of the Fania artists and was one of the best known names in the salsa scene (or salsoso, as some say), besides being a kind of Midas of the sauce that turned everything it touched into gold. It sold a lot. Also, as he explains César Miguel Rondón in his referential ‘Book of salsa’, Colón was avant-garde, a musician who always anticipated “the turns and trends while still taking advantage of the benefits of the industry & rdquor ;. A “nonconformist”, a lover of experiments. Blades, for his part, was trying to do what no one had done before: lyrics made halfway between the chronicle and the story, lyrics with social content, not only to dance but also to listen to. They both understood each other and their society came out, first, ‘Putting his hand’, and then that summit called ‘Siembra’, the revolutionary album that changed the history of salsa.
“The Grammy partly rewards that,” says Monsalve, “the arrival, by the hand of Blades, of a series of values that the sauce did not have, or that they were not so explicit before him, like the social aspect or the protest aspect. Before, salsa referred to the neighborhood, to the revelry, to the enjoyment of dancing, but Blades appeared to give a twist to the letters through a kind of conscience, a Blades that not only had clear social motivations but was capable of very well-crafted poetry that until then had not had a place in the world of salsa either. Through that awareness, Blades turned it into a genre that was also culture. Before it was not seen like that, but from it you can talk about salsa as a cultural movement & rdquor ;. From the New York niche that had been its natural market until then, salsa was projected to all corners of Latin America.
A writer who sings
“Blades is a writer who sings & rdquor ;, says the Venezuelan writer Edgar Borges, author of ‘Links. Apuntes con Rubén Blades’, a book constructed from the encounters and correspondence he has had with the Panamanian musician since they became friends in 1984. “Blades is a chronicler who describes a Latin American and world situation. With him it happens as with Bob Dylan, that you take those letters of his and they can perfectly be published as books. ‘Pedro Navaja’ is a little story, or ‘Plastic’, or ‘Jaws’. He won a story contest in Panama before he became famous, and he told me that what he wanted at the beginning was to be a writer & rdquor ;. ‘Pedro Navaja’ is a little story, as is ‘Pablo Pueblo’; or as ‘Decisions’ is a small compilation. But the most reliable demonstration of his literary soul is Hispania –or Hispanía–, that imaginary country that Blades himself describes in Benaim’s documentary as follows:
-“Me I have a mythical place that is Hispanía and in that continent or in that place there is a city and in that city there are neighborhoods and within those neighborhoods there are characters. So, we are creating those figures that They live within the narrative that I started in ’69. I do not know my characters totally, because I have only described pieces of their life, but there are many connections between them, I am discovering them now & rdquor ;.
“It is what is said a Renaissance”, says José Arteaga, editor of Radio Gladys Palmera, in reference to his concerns beyond music
“There are a very clear cosmogony in the music of Rubén Blades, something very associated with literature, “says Monsalve.” What happens is that he prosecuted it through music. It is a neighborhood universe where all its characters live, and it is so well constructed that I think it is something we should be grateful for & rdquor ;. Pedro Navaja, Cipriano Armenteros, Juan Pachanga, María Lionza, Pablo Pueblo & mldr; According to Arteaga, they were not originally born to inhabit that literary cosmogony, they were individual characters, but when Blades thought of his imaginary country, he placed them there. And when did you think of that country, your, let’s put it this way, particular Macondo? On ‘Maestra vida’, the salsa opera of the Panamanian. After ‘Siembra’, sponsored by Fania (“endorsed by & rdquor; would be more appropriate) and produced, of course, by his compadre Willie Colón.
And then, of course, there is everything that Blades must be writing in his memoirs, which are part of that awareness of his old age and of leaving things said in his own way: that he has recorded in English, that he has been an actor, that he has been Minister of Tourism of Panama as well as a candidate for the presidency; Before becoming a musician, he studied Law at the University of Panama. “It is what is called a Renaissance & rdquor ;, says Arteaga. “You hardly find someone with so many concerns,” says Monsalve. “It is impossible to pigeonhole him, neither as a musician nor as a person & rdquor ;, says Borges. Of course, If there was an Olympus of salsa, Blades would be there There’s no doubt. “With Héctor Lavoe, with Ismael Rivera, with Celia Cruz & rdquor ;, says Arteaga. “With Catalino Curet, with Tito Rodríguez and with Machito & rdquor ;, says Monsalve. An Olympus that you access not so much as a singer, but as a composer. “Definitely the poet stands out, because he was the man of innovation – says Monsalve -. Blades has a great voice that comes from Cheo Feliciano’s school, which in turn comes from the school of Tito Rodríguez, and that would have been enough for him to have a prominent role in salsa, but what makes him what he is are his lyrics. singer –said Arteaga–. Yes the Grammys have looked at the transcendence in time, that future will come through his lyrics & rdquor ;.
Heard, you hear yourself sing. It is Rubén Blades, the composer, the singer, the poet. “Around the corner / of the old neighborhood / I saw him go by & rdquor ;, he says. “With the tumbao / that handsome men have / when they walk & rdquor ;, we all respond.