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INTERVIEW : From Pop to Populism : Ruben Blades’ music is filled with messages of social justice. On the eve of his avowed farewell concert, the salsa star breaks a lengthy silence to discuss his chances of turning words into deeds as Panama’s president

<i> Enrique Lopetegui writes about pop music for Calendar</i>

Ruben Blades’ concert Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri is part of the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s farewell--at least for now--to pop music.

He hopes to record a long-awaited reunion album with Willie Colon. Then Blades--one of the most innovative and influential Latino musicians ever--will return to his native Panama, where he tops the opinion polls for next year’s presidential election.

Blades, whose music has been filled with messages of freedom and social justice, hasn’t declared his candidacy for the office, but he says he would accept the nomination of Papa Egoro (“Mother Earth”), the political party he launched in 1992 and was officially recognized last January, if he is drafted at the November convention and can develop a program that reflects a national consensus.

His main goal isn’t to become president, he says, but to help bring to the country the social values that he has long advocated in his lyrics--values that have cut across traditional left wing-right wing boundaries by, for instance, condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba and then attacking Cuba’s own human rights violations.

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“To fix Panama, you need more than charisma and records, you need a program of action,” Blades said recently during his first extended interview in more than two years.

This isn’t Blades’ first break from pop music. He took two years off in the early ‘80s to obtain a law degree from Harvard University.

In fact, he obtained a law degree in Panama before moving to Miami in 1974 to join his exiled family (his father was accused of being a CIA agent by then-Col. Manuel A. Noriega, who was in charge of military intelligence. Instead of practicing law, however, Blades moved to New York, the salsa capital of the world, to pursue a singing and songwriting career.

After a stint with Ray Barreto’s orchestra, Blades recorded three landmark albums in the late ‘70s with Colon. Their impact in salsa was comparable to that of Lennon & McCartney in rock.

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They revamped salsa music with ambitious arrangements and socially conscious lyrics that helped bring substance and international respect to what was formerly viewed as simply dancemusic. Their brilliant album “Siembra” was prohibited byAnastasio Somoza Debayle’s right-wing government in Nicaragua because Blades yelled “Nicaragua without Somoza!” at the end of the hit “Plastico.”

Since going solo in 1981, Blades hasn’t regained the commercial status he achieved with Colon, but he has continued to work in creative and imaginative ways. In addition to his music, the two-time Grammy winner has acted in several movies (including the upcoming “The Color of Night” with Bruce Willis) and television productions, for which he was twice nominated for Emmys.

On the eve of his Bowl concert, Blades, who lives in Santa Monica, spoke in Spanish about his music, his politics and his decision to return home.

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Question: Why are you so reluctant to give interviews?

Answer: For several reasons, I haven’t spoken to anybody for about 2 1/2 years. I got tired of going to talk shows and being treated as a celebrity. Most of the entertainment press deals with the immediate news status of an artist, without seriously considering the work of that artist. They come to me to ask me things like, “Is Bruce Willis a nice guy?” Why don’t they ask him? My patience ended when someone unqualified asked me political questions.

You know, politics is a very complex issue, and the result of that was the biggest lie: “ Salsero wants to be president.” I never said that. In general, both in Spanish and English, the quality of the entertainment media is horrible. If they want me for an AIDS campaign or a literacy program, I’m all for it. But not for myself.

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Q: What made you agree to this one?

A: I don’t know, I felt this was going to be a little better than other interviews. C’mon, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for seven years, and The Times never called me for anything. (Note: Blades was last interviewed by Calendar in 1986). But I’m not complaining.

Actually, you should be doing this with Tito Puente, not with me. He’s been around for 40 years. Him, Celia (Cruz), (Eddie) Palmieri. Give it to them, I don’t need it. Besides, the Anglo press doesn’t give a damn about the Latino stuff. They come now because there’s a salsa show at the Hollywood Bowl. After that, for years and years they don’t care.

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Q: Regarding your immediate plans, it’s hard to believe that you’ll be able to stop making music just like that.

A: My wife doesn’t believe me either. I might come back in the future with a smaller group in a different format, something more theatrical, more Bertolt Brecht-oriented, with more humor. But my passion now is concentrated in Papa Egoro, the political alternative I founded for Panama. I want to close this beautiful chapter in my life during which I said a lot of things. Now it’s the time to do things.

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Q: Before we get into that, talk about your and Willie Colon’s musical chemistry.

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A: Willie is one of the first musicians who traveled from New York to Latin America and received a lot of information from other places. He developed a Pan American message of social awareness, and when he met me he found someone with more fluency in Spanish capable of articulating many ideas. He contributed with his New York street culture, his talent as a producer and an incredible, truly Latino, pure tropical energy. A mixture of prankishness and sense of humor, of virility and feeling. He’s extremely sensitive, and one of the most intelligent persons I know.

I’m grateful to him because he’s the one who gave me the chance to show my music. He was like my artistic godfather, and no record label could say no to my music, because he was behind it at a time when he was the No. 1 salsa star in the world. This new record with him will be good to destroy rumors about bad feelings between us. But the most difficult thing for people to understand is that I already had a talent. Songs like ‘Pedro Navaja’ and ‘Plastico’ would’ve been hits anyway. Maybe not in 1976, but in 1979.

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Q: After you split with him, he said that it was very painful for him to listen to your music, and that he thinks you didn’t listen to his work either.

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A: I did listen to his work, because I always want to learn from him. But although I continued having success on my own, my star status also decreased. Especially when I wanted my first album without any trombones. Everybody said I was a dead man without trombones, but we went on with “Buscando America” (“Searching for America”), and later won a Grammy with “Escenas” (“Scenes”).

We had a lot of opposition, not only because I was being very critical of Ronald Reagan and his foreign policies, but because many thought I was going crazy for not including trombones on a salsa album. The truth is, I felt it was immoral for me to leave Colon’s trombone group and compete with his sound. I wanted something completely different.

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Q: You have a reputation for arousing strong feelings in people who know you--it seems either they love you or they can’t stand you.

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A: It has always been like that--when I graduated from high school, when I became a lawyer, when I wanted to be a musician, when I moved to Los Angeles. . . . Some people, out of their own complexes, demons and insecurities, expect you to do things according to their vision. When you do it your way, you become a problem to them. They never wish you well and say goodby waving their handkerchiefs. Come on, they even said I shaved my mustache because I wanted to look more gringo! Or that argument that I married my American wife because I cannot handle a Latino woman in bed, nonsense like that.

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Q: What made you launch Papa Egoro?

A: At a certain point, people in Panama thought that everything was going to be solved as soon as Noriega was gone. Of course, the disappointment was huge. Thirty-five percent of the country’s population is under 14 and has tremendous problems of drug consumption and civic apathy. I asked myself: “Am I going to keep criticizing or should I do something about it?” It’s very comfortable to remain in California and talk. That’s something my critics carefully avoid to mention: That I leave my comforts to go to Panama and work in politics. I’m descending to politics, not ascending.

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Q: Well, what about the fact itself of being president, the power . . .

A: What power? I saw five different presidents while my mother was playing piano. The job as a piano teacher is safer than that of a president of Panama. I don’t need fame or money--I have both. If I go to Panama it’s to help, to have the power, yes, but the power to do things. I don’t want the government, I want the power. What good will it be to get the presidency if the Legislature and the Assembly don’t support you? The same people who voted for you will get you out of there in five months.

I studied law because I wanted to do politics later on, but the situation is so desperate that we must do something quick, before it’s too late. If my party chooses me as presidential candidate, I have no choice but to accept--it’s a duty. But we need a program. Unemployment, hunger, drugs cannot be eliminated with charisma or records.

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Q: How are you going to find that program?

A: We’re working on that. But we don’t think or act as a traditional party, and that alternative alone is unprecedented in Latin America. Those parties go to the corner and say, “Listen, imbeciles , this is what you have to do to solve your problems!” That’s the problem of all the groups, especially communism: They’re movements of intelligentsias, intellectuals, not “the people.”

I don’t accept ideologies that are not a product of consensus. I don’t have an ideology, but I do have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. And the worst mistake would be to elaborate a program without having the input of all sectors of society. So far, by decree, our party reserved 50% of the seats to women. That’s an example of our attitude. Just like it’s a mistake not to ask pregnant women before signing a maternity law, we want to make sure we ask everybody for opinions on how to solve the country’s problems, including children. Consensus is the key.

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Q: For some, your criticism of Cuba helps obscure the achievements there in the areas of health, education and housing, something unparalleled in Latin America.

A: Nobody is arguing with that. I’m against the embargo and against U.S. intervention in our domestic problems, but I’m also against the Marxist-Leninist government in Cuba. I’m against the beating and jailing of Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who won their national prize of poetry, because she signed a paper demanding reforms in Cuba. She wasn’t even holding a grenade or something like that.

And I think it’s a big mistake of most of the Latin American intellectuals to put under the rug the obvious human rights violations in Cuba in order to “protect” their achievements in medicine, housing or education. Let me rephrase that: An education without different opinions. That’s indoctrination, not education. As an artist, I can’t remain silent about that.

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Q: Considering that opinion, it’s ironic that you’re very unpopular with the Cuban exile community in the United States. Latin radio in Miami won’t even play your music.

A: I understand the Cubans in Miami, although some of them represent an extremist position just a bad as that of the Communists they condemn. I’ve said many things against the U.S. government, and I wrote anti-imperialist songs like “Tiburon” (“Shark”). They took it as a pro-Communist hymn when actually it was against fascism in either form, right or left. But I’ve never called them gusanos (a pejorative term for Cuban exiles, meaning worms ). That’s very disrespectful. Although I share some visions with the left, especially on education, human rights, health care, I was never a Communist. I share some of their views, but I have a problem when they present Marxism as an answer to all the problems.

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Q: Your social agenda is very clear. But is it possible to install a capitalist system without having much of the population struggling to survive?

A: It’s not necessary for that to happen. That happens only when the government doesn’t allow the proper distribution of opportunities and becomes part of the corrupt system by allowing the same old hands to deal with the money. We can’t say, “Let’s have a country for the poor only,” because that has never worked anywhere in the world.

We must accept the fact that there’s a sector that invests, and a sector that works. Not a single group has the solution, and the only way to have it is to sit down with all the groups and come to an agreement. That will guarantee social justice and peace, without which you just can’t have fair investments. And in our vital search for justice, we must make sure that the country and its institutions don’t explode. Only something like a national therapy will resolve the mess Panama is in.


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