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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

September 12, 1993|ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI | Enrique Lopetegui writes about pop music for Calendar

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.

"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.

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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