At a glance, it might appear that Ruben Blades has the best of all worlds. Even though his name isn't exactly a household word, the 37-year-old native of Panama has done quite well for himself in the United States.
First, he released the ground-breaking "Buscando America" album, which Time magazine dubbed among the best of 1984. That was followed by last year's lead in the critically acclaimed film "Crossover Dreams" and participation in the historic "Sun City" record and video. This year, he received a Grammy nomination and was profiled on CBS' "60 Minutes."
Blades isn't resting on his laurels, however. He's busy at work on several projects, including recording in English under the moniker of "Panama Blades," preparing an album of Panamanian music and working on a movie, "Critical Condition," with Richard Pryor.
But all isn't as Blades would have it. He's facing a dilemma between being appreciated critically but not receiving the air play and record sales he feels he deserves. He's caught much like his "Crossover Dreams" character Rudy Velez: choosing between retaining his cultural uniqueness or going at any cost for the hit record by becoming "the Latino of the Week."
A case in point for Blades is his current English language 12-inch mix of "Muevete/Move On" taken from his album, "Escenas/Scenes."
With its rousing lyrics and lilting Afro-Cuban beat remixed by John (Jellybean) Benitez, "Muevete"--a salsa paean to Latino unity--comes across like a big audio nitroglycerin explosion. And while it's just as danceable as Miami Sound Machine's recent success "Conga"--considered a breakthrough reminiscent of the Latin mambo crossover hits of the '50s--it didn't get much air play.
Neither did "Escenas," which was released last fall. Despite the careful packaging (the album was shipped with English lyric translations by Blades), it nevertheless was relegated to Billboard's Latin charts under the subheading of "Salsa/Tropical." It peaked at No. 3 and now occupies the No. 21 slot after 23 weeks of release.
But any attempt to categorize Blades' music as salsa "with a political beat" will only get you a long explanation by Blades as to why it's just not that simple and why he no longer wishes to be identified solely as a salsa singer.
"Salsa as a music dedicated solely to dancing is dying," is the only comment Blades has on his former bread-and-butter music. And in the lyrics of the 12-inch version of "Muevete," he voices his disdain of the "Ricky Ricardo" type of salsa in a spoken aside: "OK, you can muevete and move your you-know-whats all the way to the dance floor. Just don't wear any food on your head. We don't do that anymore!"
By the same token, his withdrawal from the salsa circuit hasn't prevented his old record label Fania (now called MLI) from releasing an odds-and-ends collection, "Mucho Mejor/Much Better," which ironically earned him a 1985 Grammy nomination for best Tropical Latin performance, while his "Escenas" was completely ignored.
Yet the rough times and lean years as a salsa singer found a positive, creative outlet for Blades in "The Last Fight," his first screen performance in 1982. Its story line was mirrored later in "Crossover Dreams."
Filmed in 1983 on a shoestring budget, "Dreams" had a short run late last year in both Los Angeles and New York, where it received good notices. But the cautionary tale, which many Latinos felt preached a know-your-place message, proved to be a box-office flop.
"Some parts of the film were misrepresented," Blades admits now, forgoing his earlier reticence in discussing the film. "I consider the ending as far as Latinos interpreting it as 'know-your-place' was the result of the film not being as clear as it could have been. That's obvious or otherwise people wouldn't have gotten that message. On the other hand, imperfect as the film may be, another message does come across: You don't have to negate your roots to succeed. And the film is also important from the standpoint that Latinos can make a film with such a small budget."
Blades, however, proved he has screen charisma with the critics and since has been approached with projects that range from social commentary to comedy roles. Blades is now on location in North Carolina in the Richard Pryor comedy "Critical Condition," portraying a prison guard.
As one of the artists involved in the recent "Sun City" record and video, Blades strangely enough didn't participate on Hermanos' "Cantare, Cantaras"--the Spanish-language single and video to aid children of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
"I asked Hermanos' directors to (let me) participate, but they never called me back. I also went to the Mexican earthquake telethon but the SIN-TV people had everything already scheduled. So I left a contribution."