is one of the most successful vocalists in the history of Panamanian music. A former member of bands led by
has continued to influence salsa music with his highly literate, politically tinged lyrics and his modern-minded arrangements, which substitute the usual horn and Latin percussion sections with synthesizers and drum sets. Often referred to as "the Latin
provided a musical voice for the middle class of Central America. Raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Panama City,
inherited his musical talents from his parents. His mother, Anoland, who emigrated from Cuba, played piano and sang in Spanish. His father, Ruben Sr., a police detective, played bongos.
Inspired by the doo wop singing of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers
began singing North American pop and rock songs in his early teens. In 1963, he became the lead singer of a band, the Saints, formed by his older brother, Luis. The political upheaval in Panama during the mid-'60s had a profound effect as Blades
became increasingly committed to his own roots, refusing to sing in any language but his native Spanish.
While studying law at the University of Panama, Blades
continued to be involved with his music, singing with Conjunto Latino and Los Salvajes del Ritmo. In 1968, an album he recorded with Bush and the Magnificos reached Joe Cuba
's producer in New York. Invited to join Cuba
's band, he declined in order to complete college. When the Panamanian government closed the university, he made his first trip to the United States. While in the U.S., Blades
recorded an album, From Panama to New York
, with Pete Rodriguez
. Shortly after the album's release, the University of Panama was reopened and Blades
returned to complete his undergraduate studies. Although he accepted a position as a lawyer for the Bank of Panama, following his graduation, he returned to the U.S., to visit his parents, who had emigrated to Miami, in 1974.
While in the United States, Blades
traveled to New York and took a job in the mailroom of the Latin-oriented Fania record label. A year later, he replaced Tito Allen
as featured vocalist in Ray Barretto
's band, auditioning in Fania's mailroom. When Barretto
left to form a Latin fusion group, Blades
took over as bandleader and renamed the group Guarare
. In 1975, Blades
composed and sang lead on Barretto
's recording "Canto Abacua," featured on the album Barretto
. As a result, Blades
was named Composer of the Year by Latin New York magazine. Blades
had also been playing with Willie Colón
's band, and he remained with Colón
for six years. Their collaboration reached its apex with the three-million-copy-selling album Siembra
, which included the single "Pedro Navaja," the biggest selling single in salsa history. Blades
' politically oriented lyrics were not universally accepted. In 1980, his song "Tiburon," which spoke out against superpower intervention in the Caribbean, was banned from radio airplay in Miami.
Forming his own band, Los Seis del Solar
, in 1982, Blades
began to perform an exciting fusion of Latin, rock, reggae, and Caribbean music. Their debut album, Buscando América
, was released in 1983. A year later, Blades
enrolled in the graduate school at Harvard University, eventually receiving a master's degree in international law.
Since the early '80s, Blades
has balanced his musical career with acting and writing songs for such films as The Last Fight, Crossover Dreams, Critical Condition, Fatal Beauty, The Milagro Beanfield War, Dead Man Out, Disorganized Crime, The Lemon Sisters, The Two Jakes, Predator 2, One Man's War, The Josephine Baker Story, Crazy From the Heart, Color of Night, A Million to Juan, Scorpion Spring, and The Devil's Own. Blades
shared the title role, with Marc Anthony
, in Paul Simon
's Broadway musical The Capeman.Blades
, who lives in California with his actress wife Lisa Lebenzon, has remained active with politics. The founder of a new political party in Panama, he ran for president of Panama in 1994, coming in second in the election. While much of Blades
' repertoire is in the Spanish language, he recorded an English-language album, Nothing But the Truth
, featuring songs by Lou Reed
, Elvis Costello
, and Sting
, in 1988.
The 1990s were relatively busy ones for Blades
musically, and he released several albums, including Ruben Blades y Son del Solar...Live!
(1991), Amor y Control
(1994), La Rosa de los Vientos
(1996), and Tiempos
(1999) before stepping back a bit in the first decade of the 21st century, releasing Mundo
in 2002, the Live! In Concert DVD in 2006, and De Panama a Nueva York