MEXICO CITY — Sometimes one may wonder what would have happened if Ruben Blades had been president of Panama. Would he have been good? Hated? Was it better that he didn’t?
“I think it would have been good for the country,” Blades said Thursday in a video call interview just hours before of the Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas. It turned into a huge night for Blades, who was honored as the Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year and won album of the year for “SALSWING!” and best salsa album for “SALSA PLUS!”, both with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta.
“People say that power corrupts. I don’t think so. I believe that power unmasks,” he added. “They don’t buy you if you don’t sell yourself. … Public service to me is worth more than a Grammy or all the Grammys I have earned or whatever they give me. There is nothing better than serving your country and your people, period.”
What’s happened since he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1994 is that he remained faithful to music and acting. (His fans are still eager to see more of him as Daniel Salazar in the series “Fear The Walking Dead.”) And he held a public service position as Minister of Tourism from 2004 to 2009, without any of the corruption or nepotism scandals that often plague Latin American politicians. In fact, as seen in the 2018 documentary “Ruben Blades is Not My Name,” he can still walk the streets of Panama and be greeted by people.
After being fascinated by the music of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers in the movie “Rock Rock Rock!” when he was about 10, Blades entered music through a very back door in the ’70s but never left.
Although, “contrary to what people who don’t know what they are talking about say, I did not leave Panama with the purpose of being a musician, I left Panama because I was not going to be a lawyer in a dictatorship,” said Blades, whose parents left the country before him because of a problem with military leader Manuel Noriega. “When I arrived in Florida to be with my family, there were going through a lot of hardship and I couldn’t help them because my law degree didn’t work in Florida. So I called FANIA, which was the largest salsa record company.”
Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz from FANIA had recorded Blades’s “Guaguancó Triste” in 1971 and he was hoping they would give him a job as a songwriter or musician. The only spot they had available was as the person in charge of the label’s mail room.
“I started in the FANIA mail room and Ray Barretto found me there … Someone told him, ‘That guy that’s there stamping correspondence in FANIA, that guy sings and writes songs,” Blades recalled. “Barreto went to see me and I auditioned and he placed me in the orchestra with Tito Gómez, may he rest in peace, and that’s how I started in New York in 1974.”
“Buscando Guayaba,” “Pedro Navaja,” “Plástico,” “Prohibido Olvidar,” “Buscando América” and “Desapariciones” are some of the songs by FANIA’s former mail clerk who, with the two trophies from Thursday, now has 10 Latin Grammys and nine Grammy Awards.
“As long as I can sing and provide to the public with the level of quality that I demand of myself and that they are used to receiving from me, I will continue working. But the moment I feel that the voice or the disposition, the enthusiasm, is not there, that is the day that will I stop immediately, just the way I stopped smoking”, he said. “Music will never leave me because music is something that helps you spiritually, it helps you even therapeutically and keeps you in communication with the best in the universe.”
On Wednesday, Blades was celebrated at the traditional Person of the Year benefit concert by dozens of artists, including Andrés Calamaro, Vicentico, Flor de Toloache, Diego Torres, Farruko and Joaquín Sabina, who performed covers of his songs.
“The fact that he (Sabina) traveled from Spain to share this moment with me seems very special to me,” he said. “I told him, ‘You could have done it via Zoom.’ It surprised me and I appreciate it immensely, I admire him very much.
“I was also surprised by Christina Aguilera. I didn’t even know that she knew me,” he said about the American singer, who performed “Camaleón” with an arrangement similar to the Ecuadorian pasillo.
The 73-year-old star emphasizes that music and acting always require teamwork. His on-screen companions through his more than 50 film and television credits have included Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Danny Glover, Robert De Niro.
“I learn a lot from my coworkers,” Blades said. “I really like working and learning from other people.”
However, he lamented that there are not many Latino figures in film and television in the United States.
“Despite the fact that we are the minority group with the largest number of people and despite our contributions that help greatly to the gross domestic product and the culture of the United States,” he said. “So the presence of a Latino there is something that seems necessary to me to represent all the contributions that we make.”
The third constant in Blades’ life has been his search for social justice, backing causes ranging from the fight to hunger and poverty, to supporting migrants and HIV patients.
“Fame provides a stage and an opportunity to express opinions that are going to have an impact and should be a positive impact on our society,” said Blades. “It is positive that an artist speaks in a responsible and informed manner on issues that otherwise might not attract attention.”