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Transcript of Conversations with Ilan Stavans: Rubén Blades

Coming up on La Plaza, Ilan Stavans talks with singer/actor Rubén Blades about music, acting, and politics.
BLADES: ...Like I was saying - the people say, "money corrupts, power corrupts." I don't agree with that. I think it unmasks,, it unmasks you... that's the big difference.
STAVANS: Rubén, your latest album, Mundo, just came out, and after some twenty before, it shows you at a very different stage in your life: much more reflective, mature. It is an album about world, world music in general influences-tell me about it. How did it come to be and the influences and how you perceive the album yourself?
BLADES: I think it's an accumulation of experiences. I was born and grew up in Panama. We have coasts on both sides; we have access to the Pacific Ocean, to the Atlantic Ocean. So Panama was always a place where all kinds of sounds and people kept coming and going. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. And I think recently all the discoveries related to genetics brought me back to the point that we all come from the same source. The background is the same.
STAVANS: Which is the major kind of thesis, philosophical argument of the record. There is something fabulous in the way it brings Irish - Celtic music - and Islamic music through Andalucía, through Cante Rondo and Flamenco. I was particularly struck by the Muslim influence in the record. And it is important to me because very often we, as Latinos, forget that there is that background in our culture as well.
BLADES: Many times in New York, I'll go to a store to buy cigarettes or water or milk and I will see the clerk and I will talk to him in Spanish and he'll look at me and not understand me and say "um, I don't understand Spanish." I say, "well, where are you from?" - "Egypt, Lebanon," and you know, it's not only that we look the same, I think that like you said, a lot of the people who originally came to America from Spain came from a place that had been under Moor domination for six hundred years.
Culturally speaking the background these people had when they came here was a background that was as much Arabic as it was Spanish. So the backgrounds of the songs reflect that influence in Spain. The Flamenco is a Moorish chant if you look at. We have been in one way or another in contact with these sounds; we just didn't really pinpoint where they came from.
STAVANS: And at the same time, the record shows those two sides that you have in your music that enchant me particularly. On the one hand the storytelling - there are all sorts of stories being told in the different songs - and on the other the political side, the Rubén Blades that is always very conscious of his view of the world and how things should change.
Let me start first with the storytelling. Tell me about storytelling in your childhood. How did this act of telling stories come to you and why through music, you look to disseminate it? How does it come about?
BLADES: I think it came about because of the culture in Panama itself. It's a very young country, so there's a lot of storytelling. We are developing, and I think that oral traditions are still very much alive. Particularly in my case I have my grandmother who spent a lot of time with me-
STAVANS: Your grandmother on your father's side?
BLADES: On my father's side - an exceptional woman, educated and with a fiercely independent free spirit. At the beginning, she was the one who first started to read to me. We went from The Three Bears to The Three Musketeers to The Iliad. So the idea of stories, of telling stories - the pleasure it provided me to hear these stories and later to read them myself just gave me this whole new horizon. So I felt that, not only did I feel good about how I felt, I also felt I wanted to continue doing this for other people as well. It became my medium to express myself and that's why every song that I do is really a short story.
STAVANS: And in a short story that - because of the medium of music - can go out be assimilated by people that don't read or don't have access to literature. There is one particularly song on this album called "Sebastián" about kind of a crazy, a lunatic in town and how he captures the entire town in way of being. Was there a similar person in when you were growing up?
BLADES: I've known many "Sebastiáns." Like I say, "en cada barrio, hay por lo menos un loco" - in each neighborhood there is at least one crazy person. And that's true for family too. You always have someone in the family that's a little off. The song was inspired by a friend of mine, Horacio Valdés, who plays rock in an acoustic rock group called Son Miserables in Panama. When I heard the story as told by Horacio, immediately I said to Horacio, "Horacio, I would like to rewrite this." Because I felt that, with all due respect to Horacio, there were certain things that were missing - that he didn't really go beyond certain things. The image of the girlfriend that he invented waiting for him to return after he goes to fetch the star that she asked him for and drowns, the spaceship that he was building to go with her to build stars, to get stars ... all of that stuff I thought needed to be explored.
And the point of the story is that - there were three love stories. Sebastián was one of them in that there were three moments. First is the man in "Ella" who is loved by a woman and doesn't understand how she can love him in a way that he cannot love her. He cannot understand that. The Sebastián story of the man who is alienated, creates a love and then goes to fetch a star. He doesn't get it, but the love waits for him and he never realizes that that love ever existed. And then the third one of the captain and the mermaid, where two people love each other but the captain cannot live in the water and the mermaid cannot breathe on land. So I was trying to explore these different projections of love. It's like looking at love but from a side point.
STAVANS: Probably the most famous short story you have written - if I can use that term - the most famous song or the one that people recognize most - I myself grew up with it - is "Pedro Navaja," this extraordinary tale about a thief-
BLADES: Thank you, thank you for all the...
STAVANS: No, but tell me. Tell me, how did "Pedro Navaja" come to materialize in your mind and what has Pedro done to you?
BLADES: Well, thank God he hasn't knifed me yet. Pedro came as a direct result of my curiosity with Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife." Originally, when I was in Panama I loved Rock and Roll. I started really singing in English - Do-Wop.
Everybody had Do-Wop roots; "Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers" was very, very popular in Panama. And it was something that you could do. All you needed to get is the right echo and the right building and you sounded like you were on the radio or you had your own record. And it was easy. We didn't need instruments. We just vocalized.
So, in the midst of this Rock and Roll, which I lived from its inception - I remember listening to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" like two months after it had been released in the United States. Because it was Panama. The North Americans were there in the Canal Zone so there was access to all what was happening, musically speaking.
And we loved Do-Wop. And then we heard Bobby Darin and Bill Haley and the Comets, and all those groups and I loved "Mack The Knife." And it stayed with me. The melody was haunting, haunting.
And then I as I started to grow up, I started to incorporate to my feeling a lot of things that I observed. There was a gang called The Black Sneakers - Las Zapatillas Negras. There was another gang called The Gold Tooth - Los Dientes de Oro. So you pick out the sneakers, the tooth.
Then when I got to New York in 1969 for the first time, and when I went back in 1974 after I graduated from Law School in Panama, then I saw the pimps in the 42nd Street area. They wore the coats, the big hats with the wide rim, you know. And so all of these things started coalescing and then all of a sudden - boom! - the song came.
STAVANS: Have you ever done the song in English or in any - it's in Spanish, it's so stuck in Spanish. Could it be in anything other than Spanish?
BLADES: Oh yeah, there's Tony Touch, a New York rapper. He just did a sort of a rap -
STAVANS: Version?
BLADES: Version, yeah. I think it probably could be done; I'm sure it can be done. If you can translate a book into a different language from its original, you can do it with music. Sometimes though, it's very funny because I find if you translate Kafka into English it doesn't have the same intensity as Kafka into Spanish.
STAVANS: Which probably would lose something.
BLADES: Absolutely.
STAVANS: On the other hand it would reach a different audience.
BLADES: Yes. So what I like to do is put translations in the albums when it's so cheap.
STAVANS: We were talking about storytelling in your music and I wanted to talk also about politics. You have been an intensively political figure, both as a musician and as an activist in a variety of realms and fields. You ran for office in Panama in 1994, and you came in third out of seven-
BLADES: Seven candidates, 27 parties.
STAVANS: What did you learn from that and why would you do it?
BLADES: For me the political act has always I've always interpreted it as a self-defense act. I feel attacked by corruption. I feel attacked by -
STAVANS: mean accosted?
BLADES: Yeah, I feel personally attacked by these people, these candidates that are supposedly in charge of the administration of our future, our hopes, you know. And all of a sudden they are not only mediocre by a tremendous percentage, but also they look to serve themselves, not the country. And they get into that position because we allow them to get there. And the media in general tends to support certain positions and so, I found that as a singer I had the liberty to write a song and interpret it, not just in my view - I have to also make it clear that I never wrote politically. I wrote from a human point of view, a social point of view, not ideologically; that's why the songs have sustained themselves through the years. It was an act of self-defense. And when I ran for office what I was trying to -
STAVANS: For the office of president-
BLADES: For president in Panama. What I was telling people in Panama and in Latin America was we are not condemned to this situation of two parties, we can create a third party.
STAVANS: But, Rubén, where does corruption come from and are we condemned, doomed to have that type of behavior permanently? Can it be cleaned by a single politician or a celebrity that comes into politics? Is it truly possible to eliminate corruption? Or is it so deeply rooted in our societies because of a variety of historical reasons that it cannot be eliminated?
BLADES: I don't think that one can eliminate corruption. I mean the Church has been telling us the value of virtue for over two thousand years and it could be an argument whether how good or bad it's been. I think that you can limit the opportunity for corruption and with that, drastically better the general conditions of a society. I don't know how feasible this would be in countries with a tremendous amount of population.
STAVANS: Such as Mexico or-Brazil
BLADES: Mexico I don't know... I don't really know - and let me tell you-
STAVANS: But is it possible in Panama?
BLADES: In places like Panama I am totally convinced-
STAVANS: Which has about three million-
BLADES: Less than three million people. I am totally convinced it can be done. I am totally convinced it can be done.
STAVANS: And how could it be done? Why would people trust you? A person who has spent more than 30 years outside to clean a mess that is 500 years old?
BLADES: I don't think that they necessarily felt that I was capable of doing it on my own. And they were right about that. No one can do it on their own. I think people voted for me in '94 as an anti-vote. They said, "you know, we're not going to vote for the problem; we're going to vote for our hope that we can get out of this choice of what do we want: a heart attack or cancer? We're going to go and vote for this opportunity. Which we are not sure what this is going to be, but we suspect it's going to be better than what we're getting." In the future, I'm not going to run again in 2004 because I don't deserve to run. I mean, I haven't been in Panama, so I'm just going to support a candidate. If he has the will -
STAVANS: And who's he?
BLADES: Martín Torrijos, who is the son of the -
STAVANS: Of the dictator -
BLADES: The dictator, Omar Torrijos... I think Martín Torrijos has the civilian will. I think he respects the democratic process. I really think he has the will. That's all I was looking for - the will to change whatever measure - the inefficiency, the mediocrity that we have in terms of public administration.
STAVANS: And we know of course that will is never enough in politics...but that's another story. Let me ask you, what do you mean by support? If he becomes president of Panama and he wants to name you a Secretary of Education or Secretary of Culture, would you take a job like that?
BLADES: I would take it. I would -
STAVANS: Would you sacrifice your career as a musician or as an actor: two successful careers that are 30, 40 years old?
BLADES: Absolutely! Because my country is more important than making a record or a film. He really has a chance to win an election in Panama. And one thing that happens all the time - too often - they have so many people who were critical: "oh we don't like this." How many people are willing to go and work and be responsible and assume a public responsibility for what they say they believe in?
So I think that I have to do this. Now if you ask me, would you rather not have that feeling? Sometimes, yes. But I do! And it's a reaffirmation, a validation of everything I said. I wrote about this, but now, it's not about songs. "That's very nice, the songs you wrote, very nice, but now, go and work, if you have the opportunity to change people's lives - not to sing about it."
STAVANS: You have been in this country, the United States more - in terms of the amount of years - more than you have been in your own native country Panama.
BLADES: 1974 I came, so it's 29 years - no, you're right.
STAVANS: Are you an American citizen?
BLADES: I'm a Panamanian citizen with a green card.
STAVANS: With a green card-
BLADES: Which now are blue.
STAVANS: Which enables you to move freely and speak freely here, But why not become an American and run for public office here where there is a large percentage of Latinos under-represented in the public sphere that would need a figure that could change the way things are?
BLADES: I think you have many talented people here. I think Panama needs me more than the United States. We are a smaller country. Very few of us have gone out abroad and achieved success. I think it's important that the reflection of the success does not annul the affection and the recognition of your character, which was formed there.
I think it's very important that successful people abroad return to their country and try to help and explain whatever is not understood in these areas, and utilize that public perception to try to better conditions - especially now when people really don't trust the establishment anymore.
STAVANS: Do you feel American even though you have a green or a blue card?
BLADES: I've always been an American -
STAVANS: In the broader sense of the term...
BLADES: In the broader sense of the term.
STAVANS: America the continent.
BLADES: Absolutely. And what I do feel - the level of experiences that I've achieved here, in New York especially. New York made me. That's why I love New York so much. And I mean from my gut. Always. Not just being grateful but I mean it formed me as a person.
In the contacts that I had in the city, in the country in general, I found excellent examples of behavior, as much as I've also found very big disappointments in politics, in the domestic and international policies of the country. But in the general sense of the country the way that the country is built around the idea of people coming in and supporting a constitution - I think that that's something that is to be commended.
STAVANS: You've talked about success and in the media you've been described as probably the most successful Panamanian outside of Panama. Let me ask you-
BLADES: That depends who you talk to, but thank you.
STAVANS: Everything depends on whom you talk to... but does your success here and internationally at the level of music, Rubén, and also at the level of acting, have also to do with the fact that you are white-skinned? Would your pattern have been different if you were as a substantial number of people in Panama are, from African descent?
BLADES: I think it probably would have been difficult in some areas, absolutely, because of racial prejudice - which eliminates opportunities. However, in the field of music, maybe not...maybe not -
STAVANS: Why not?
BLADES: Because music is actually identified in many ways with people who are of black or people who are of color or people who are mixes like I am. I laugh because in Latin America whenever I see white people I say, "you know, you are a suspicious white, you know, because of the background." Especially in the Caribbean there are all kinds of mixes. And just as one drop of white in coffee doesn't make the coffee white, the whole notion of drops of blood is silly...and I have to say this because I think racism is a social problem, a cultural problem. But I agree with you that it is more difficult, but perhaps because I went into music and not into business, I would have been tolerated no matter what color. But I do think that that's out there and it's negative.
STAVANS: It has been said - and I think with some justice - that in Latin America, and perhaps in other places as well, success brings terrible consequences. It creates envy, and there is nothing worse than to be successful. There is resentment because you live abroad and that was reflected in the 1994 political campaign. There is resentment because you have been successful in the United States. I'm less interested in why people are resentful than how you handle your own success and how you use it, if you use it in any particular way?
BLADES: There is this sense when you talk about societies that have been crushed by the lack of opportunity because of corruption, etcetera etcetera, you know you feel sometimes like the guy who survived the war. Why me, and why the rest didn't make it and what not. My position is my happiness; I did not build it on someone else's unhappiness. I'm very aware of that. And if you have a problem with my success, that's your problem and not mine. I understand it - spiritually I understand it, logically, but I am not going to make that problem, which is not my problem, mine.
However, again, I do understand in areas where failure is sort of like the national contrase?a - password, If you do well, then there are assumptions made that you think you are better than the rest. People tend to tell you to go to hell before you do anything, because in their minds they're not prepared for someone who's been successful and will be gracious about it and not rub it in their faces - which happens in our countries of origin. A lot of people don't know how to deal with success, and I think that all has to do with how you were raised. Basically it's your family. It's like I was saying how people say money corrupts, power corrupts...I don't agree with that. I think it unmasks. It unmasks you; that's the big difference.
STAVANS: Let me return to Mundo, to the record, to the album that you just released. It has these elements that you have reflected upon in this conversation: absorbing all sorts of cultures, all sorts of rhythms from Ireland to Spain to the Caribbean, salsa-
BLADES: Middle East-
STAVANS: The Middle East. And it has also this sense of a man, a musician, who has reached his 50s, who has gone through life and can look back with a sense of satisfaction and also with a sense of a reflective dynamic and say, "I've made mistakes." There are parts in the album where you talk about mistakes you've made. What is it from now on? Where do you go from here?
BLADES: When I go back to Panama, I'm going to be very happy to be there because I really believe in my country and I know we're going to do good things there. It's not just a romantic dream; we can make things happen there. So I'm really looking forward to that. As far as music, I'm going to continue writing in my own free time - I think I'm going to get into writing books -
STAVANS: Good to hear about it-
BLADES: Yes, I haven't - I don't have your discipline, but I -
STAVANS: But you have the discipline of the musician that translates to other fields and of the actor.
BLADES: Yes, but I had my finger in too many pies. Now I'm going to go to Panama and I think between work that I have to do, I'm going to have time to look into other things. I want to better my personal relations, rekindle them, with my father - who's going to be 80, and with my brothers and my sister, with my friends. I think this is like a personal enjoyment that I want to have. I feel very, very happy.
STAVANS: Well you should be and thank you very much for coming to the show.
BLADES: Thank you for having me.

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