The multi-talented Ruben Blades—composer, singer, actor, politician....
Interview: A Visit with Ruben Blades, Part 2
by Bruce Polin
BP: OK, let's take a little tangential jump. Ruben Blades, President of Panamá. How does that title sound to you now that there is some distance from that election?
RB: I look at public service as something that becomes a responsibility if you can use your influence in a constructive way. Today, it's unusual to find performers or people who are celebrities who have a background that would in any way prepare them for the responsibilities of public service. Michael Jordan can dunk a ball, but that's about it as far as I can tell. I don't see Michael Jordan, Senator or President. Maybe he can be that, I don't know.
BP: There's Bill Bradley...
RB: Yeah, but that's a different story, Bradley went through law school. So it's very unusual to have a singer/musician, who sings popular songs, who has the kind of background that I have. The background in itself doesn't enable you to be successful as a politician, but it does create a possibility because of the discipline that you have to go through, through college to acquire the diploma. And when people look at me and they see me as a musician, they make a mistake if they think that I'm a one dimensional person. I'm not. The other circumstance is, that in a place where people do not respect politicians, people will place their respect on those they trust. I am trusted because of my success, my consistency and the quality of what I do. And also because I never robbed anyone there. The background, the legal background, brings a presumption of ability, of intelligence so that all of a sudden people will think and say, "Yeah, I can believe that this person would be able to do a better job than these people who are ripping me off."
For me, the participation in politics derived from this knowledge on the one hand and, also, it came about as an act of self defense. I mean, I'm always complaining about what politicians do. Why not then do something about it? "Pablo Pueblo" is not just going to change the world with a song. We're gonna change it through pacific ways or through violent ways. So we're gonna do it the pacific way, which is the democratic process. Personally, there was another reason and it is the contradiction which arose between the singer who sings social songs, based on the plights and the virtues and the hopes of Latin America, and where those people were in in them. When I started writing "Pablo Pueblo," I wasn't making fifty dollars a month in Panamá. I went to the university during the day and went to work in the afternoons making fifty bucks a month. The Rubén Blades in 1996 can make twenty thousand dollars in one shot, in one concert. So there's a big, huge gap there. And I started to confront that contradiction and say, "You know, I'm living better than the people I sing about." And they made it possible for me to live the way I live, they made it possible for me and my family to escape the dire conditions that most of these people continue to be mired in. So the only way that I found to underscore the sincerity of the work, and to face the responsibility that I felt, was to take to the streets. I mean, you're gonna change the world in the streets. And so abandon the commodity that wealth and fame or whatever gave you and go to the streets now with the people that you claim to care for and try to change something. And it was a very easy decision to make, in that sense.
BP: I can imagine it being an overwhelming almost sense of relief....I mean there is so much responsibility and weight tied to that position that it is in some ways a bondage, in a way. You're not free to do other things. Do you still have feelings of loss in not winning that election or do you have some sense of relief?
RB: Well, it's a mixture. I think that the country is not better off and I'm saddened by that, and I didn't go in to lose, and I don't like not to have been able to win, not in the personal sense, but in the sense of what it means to the country. We are worse off now than we were two years ago, so that hurts. I will not stop participating in the political process. However, I am not considering right now running for president in 1999. I don't think the country's ready yet, I don't think I'm ready yet and one of the first things that I have to do is return to Panamá and stay there. And at the same time I have to give things the opportunity to mature and develop. And we began something that is very important by creating this party from scratch. Totally independent, not attached to any ideology or any special interest group. Nor is it derived from the traditional economic power bases in Panamá or anywhere else. And it is a process whereas we confront people with the need to assume responsibility for their decisions and their lives. It is a generational change which will produce the type of Panamá we all say we want. So this generational change began in 1991. I mean, I have no doubt in my mind that we got a lot more votes than were given to us officially. We came in third officially with 182,000 votes and I don't believe that for one second. But to have come third, without any alliances in a field of twenty-four political parties with a candidate like myself who had no track record in politics, with no money — when we started the campaign I had three thousand dollars — and attacked by every single party and communication outlet, and to have been able to survive, and to have had the Panamánian people support it as they did gives me tremendous faith in the future of my country and optimism. And I am not going to turn my back on that. However, I am realistic. This is not an exercise in vanity. I am not going to use the trust that has been given to me for personal publicity gains. The country and myself are not prepared right now to go beyond organizing. That's what we've got to do now is organize ourselves. So I'm not planning right now to run as a presidential candidate again at this time. That doesn't mean that I'm not gonna do it in the future.
BP: Do you have any feelings about coming more politically visible here in the United States?
RB: No. I'm not a citizen, number one. Number two, the Latino community...we behave like tribes, like warring tribes and I will continue to try to be a spokesperson for reason, and to stress over and over and over the need to play our similarities against our differences. But I don't see myself becoming active politically here because of the fact that I am not a citizen and also because right now really what we have to dedicate our efforts to is to try to create a common ground for all of the Latino representatives here. I mean, we really have to do that, and unless we do that we're not going to have anything positive happening to our community in this country.
BP: Let's take another turn and talk about your current project, The Capeman. The Paul Simon musical based on murderer Salvador Agrón. Did you seek that part or did you get a call?
RB: Yeah, Paul told me about it and I thought it was very interesting. I remember the case, the Salvador Agrón case. I remember reading about it in Panamá when I was about eleven years old. It was sort of like the original...drive-by. Right now, people are being killed in South Central Los Angeles in drive-bys, and there is such violence now amongst the young. I think that Agrón was one of the first episodes of what seemed to be senseless violence at the time, but in fact was the consequence of racism, of lack of attention and opportunities. There is a sociologist by the name of Cohen who wrote about the underculture. You now, the other culture which is the subculture which exists in every city, and there are people who are living in a different world with different rules and different reactions than ours and we pretend that this isn't so. We pretend that they don't exist. We pretend that there's no impact in our lives in what they do. But people see homelessness every day, they see people eating from a garbage can and no one goes to this person and says, "Don't do that, let me buy you a dish of food." I don't care what people say, "No, that's not affecting me," or "the hell with him or her, who knows if it isn't their fault." We diminish every day with that. Allowing that to happen, I think, diminishes a city and diminishes the individual every day. So, what happened with Salvador Agrón at the time was sort of blamed on a murderous streak in this kid when in fact it just was a sort of wake-up call that we did not listen to. We didn't respond. We did not pay attention. As a result, you have the levels of violence that you have today. Today it is so common, but in 1959 the killing of those two kids in that playground was shocking. And it shocked not only the United States, it shocked everyone everywhere. Like I said, I read about it in Panamá. And what the play talks about is not only the...not glamorizing at all the episode, but exploring what impact it had on the lives of everyone who was around it at the time.
BP: It really sounds like a fascinating project.
RB: And it's also an opportunity to hear Latin sounds on Broadway. Which I don't know when was the last time that happened. And certainly when was the last time you had a Latino playing a lead on Broadway. There's Chita Rivera, but they're not common. So it's an interesting play. And Paul and I have been friends for quite some years.
BP: So it was a natural thing.
RB: Well, he figured, you know, he said, "Whom do I know who can sing this and who has a name that people, Anglo people also, can relate to." And Marc Anthony is also in it, Marc Anthony is playing the younger Agrón and I'm playing the older Agrón.
BP: It's going to be a blockbuster, I think.
RB: Well, we'll see what happens. One thing I've learned in my life is, you know, I've been in movies like The Two Jakes with Jack Nicholson that I thought would be the best thing ever and they didn't quite work.
BP: So one never knows.
RB: You never know.
BP: It sounds like a dream come true, combining acting and singing.
RB: Sure, well I've never done that. That's the other thing that attracted me to it. I've done everything but a musical.
BP: Do you see yourself doing more theater?
RB: I'd love to do more theater, but I don't know...I don't necessarily want to do musicals. I'd like to do plays. But I've never done it, and one reason I've never done it is the commitment. I mean, you really have to commit yourself and not do anything else for a whole period of time. I mean, this whole thing is going to keep me...I mean, I just had to turn down a movie with Wim Wenders to do this which really, you know, I really wanted to work with him. So it hurts me not to have been able to do it, but you know....
BP: What does being Ruben Blades afford you, besides money, that you find truly beneficial to you in your life?
RB: The opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, and also people that I have admired from afar. And through these meetings I have an opportunity to expand my knowledge and to confirm the rights and wrongs with a positive effect on my own personality. I mean, I'm friends with people like Carlos Fuentes, who's an excellent writer and future Nobel prize winner for sure, and that came about because of what I've done. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, now Derek Walcott who's working with Paul on this. Derek, I think, is ninety-three. Nobel in literature. Ella Fitzgerald once called me, "Hey, Ruben" in a plane.
BP: That's really cool.
RB: Yeah, I know. I thought, she knows me. I get a kick out of these encounters.
BP: That must be really gratifying.
RB: It is, very much so. And to be able to speak to people, remember that there's a trust that also comes with...I think the way I conducted myself all these years. I've been pretty consistent. And I'm also very down to earth so that people feel that they are accessible to me. I mean, it's very interesting, people call me by my first name when they meet me. Or even people when we've never been introduced. They say, "Hey, Ruben, como esta? How are you, Ruben?" Whether it is the doorman down there, or the cab driver. So that is, I think, the best. The sense of access to the world. That is the best. And that, to me, is the most important thing because anything else is...you know, you're not going to take that. The material stuff, you're not going to take with you.
BP: My last question is, what music do you listen to these days? What's in your CD player now?
RB: I tell you, I listen to Brazilian music every time. And then I listen to different groups. Panamánian bands, I listen to the new bands we're producing in Panamá. But, in general, Copland and Grieg, baroque music. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera. Brazilian music. Groups that are not known here like Editus from Costa Rica. So I listen to a lot of different things. What I do not do, is I don't listen to radio. I do not listen to radio, I never ever put the radio on, ever, ever. I don't listen to radio. And I never listen to my stuff unless, every so often, out of the blue, somebody calls and tells me something about a song. Then I put it in and I listen to it and then I go, "Boy, that's a good record." Because with Son del Solar, Antecedente and Caminando and Amor y Control, those three records were damn good records. But I pretty much listen to the same things. Brazilian music always. Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Eliz Regina, Quarteto Ency, MPB4, Joao Bosco.
BP: Ruben Blades; singer, writer, composer, actor, now murderer. You've done everything. Thank you so much. Descarga wishes you the best and continued success.