Latin music with a new message
RUB'EN Blades is a Latin recording artist with a different kind of message. His lyrics are a far cry from the ``Vamos a bailar!'' (``Let's dance!'') or the ``Mi amor, mi alma, mi coraz'on'' (``My love, my soul, my heart'') of much popular Latin music. In his current album, ``Buscando Am'erica,'' Blades sings (in Spanish) about the dark and funny sides of life in Latin America -- the agony of searching for a missing relative (``Desapariciones'' -- ``Disappearances''); ordinary, exasperating, and humorous events in the life of a policeman getting ready for the day's work (``GBDB''); and the moving tale of a murder in cold blood by an unidentified killer (``Father Antonio and the Altar Boy, Andr'es'').
To get his messages across to English-speaking listeners, the Panamanian-born singer-guitarist-composer-actor, who has a master's degree in international law from Harvard University, insists on having translations of his lyrics printed on the sleeves of his records.
Why sing about such subjects?
A lot of his fellow Latin Americans, says Blades, ``had things to say, but they didn't have the opportunity of saying what they thought, because of censorship in Latin American countries. In a dictatorship the government can interpret what you are saying as subversive, or whatever.
``Another problem,'' he tells the Monitor, ``is that sometimes people just do not know how to articulate their feelings. I felt I would try to establish a music that would serve as a way of unifying different Latin American countries by the presentation of city experiences that are common to all of us.
``I've always thought in terms of heart. What I've suspected was that there was a need to utilize music not just to escape, but to confront, issues as well.''
So far, acceptance of his work has been gratifying to him. The album has sold well in America's larger cities.
``I receive a lot of mail . . . ,'' says Blades. ``If I receive 500 letters, maybe three are letters that say, `Why don't you do music to dance to instead of this?' . . . All the other 497 say, `Thank you for doing this, it really moved me,' or `Thanks for saying things that had to be said.' ''
Blades (pronounced BLAH-des) became highly visible on the North American music scene with ``Buscando Am'erica,'' but he actually came to the US 21 years ago, and has been playing and recording extensively, both on his own and with bandleader Willie Colon. Thanks to his association with Colon, he was finally able to persuade the recording companies that specialize in Latin bands to accept his music, even though it took 15 years.
After recording for the Latin label Fania, Blades was ultimately offered a recording contract by Elektra, which released the current album. It was a chance to reach a larger audience outside the Latin community.
Blades is also currently starring in a major feature film, ``Crossover Dreams.'' The movie, produced by Cuban-American director Leon Ichaso and producer-writer Manuel Arce, concerns a young Latino, Rudy V'eloz, who tries to move into the high-paying, high-living world of rock, and, after a short-lived flurry of success, fails dismally. He finds himself an outsider in both worlds for a while and in the end returns to his Latin roots. To a degree, the movie seems to depict the American rock scene as the villain and applauds the hero's return to the fold, where he ``belongs.'' But Blades doesn't hold this view: ``The point of the film is that to go to another culture, you don't have to renounce your own.''
And he adds, ``I think the most important thing is that we did the film. We did it ourselves -- it was a Latin production, with Latin input, and it wasn't a `Scarface'-type movie. One learns by one's own mistakes . . . .''
Right now Blades is touring the world with his band, Seis del Solar (Six From the Tenement). He plans to form another band, probably next year, and he will call it the Gamboa Road Gang. Its music will be directed toward English-speaking audiences.
``The important thing, again,'' Blades says, ``is that we'll be able to address certain issues and address the public in English, directly. Not necessarily always in English, but I do feel a need to create an alter ego so people won't get confused and think that what I'm doing is like what everybody else does -- abandon the base and go look for the other side of the grass, you know?''
Blades made his Carnegie Hall debut with Seis del Solar Oct. 26. Its new album, ``Escenas,'' is just out. And Elektra plans to release the sound track for ``Crossover Dreams'' later this year. -- 30 --