Show #254: Rubén Blades – Searching for America

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I read with great interest the recent news that Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador will soon be canonized. Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to Romero, clearing the way for his sainthood. The Archbishop died a martyr almost 38 years ago in March 1980, when he was gunned down while leading mass. He had become a target of the Salvadoran right-wing government as a vocal champion of human rights and a critic of the government’s increasingly brutal oppression of its people.

Archbishop Romero (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As I’ve featured in a previous blog post, the multi-talented Panamanian musician and actor Rubén Blades wrote a famous song about Romero’s assassination. So given the recent canonization news, I thought we’d revisit Blades’s song “El Padre Antonio y El Monaguillo Andres,” from the wonderful album Buscando America, as well as other Blades songs about immigration, hopes, dreams, and what America means.

Rubén Blades (pronounced as “Blah-des” or as in razor blades—both are okay with him) is simply an amazing person. He grew up in Panama, in a progressive family where his mother practiced yoga and his sisters were sent off to university—even though women traditionally had less opportunity than men. He earned a law degree in Panama, came north to New York City, then swept the floors of salsa powerhouse Fania Records before becoming one of its biggest stars.

His lyrics were far from the usual salsa type (e.g. vamos a bailar). Both political and philosophical, Blades implored people not only to dance but also to think. I saw him perform several times back in the 1980’s. He would talk about current events in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but the audience would call at him to start the music because they wanted to dance. He would yell back at them to shut up and to listen to him. Blades left Fania Records in 1984 and signed with Elektra, where he had more musical freedom and was unleashed from the salsa harness. Over the years, Blades has won numerous Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards. His most recently release Salsa Big Band won both Best Salsa Album and Album of the Year at the 2017 Latin Grammy Awards.

Blades’s accomplishments are varied and wide. He has a master’s degree in International Law from Harvard, served as Panama’s Minister of Tourism for 5 years, and became an actor who has starred in dozens of hit films and TV shows, including the current AMC series, Fear the Walking Dead. Blades even ran for President of Panama in the mid-1990’s and came in a close third place.

On a personal note, I once made my mother’s Bolognese pasta for a dinner with Blades and his wife Lisa. The couple lived in Santa Monica in the early 1990’s and became friends with architect Bob Ramirez, who lived just up the street. Ramirez designed and built my first home, and he invited Blades and his wife Lisa over to my house for dinner. I remember Blades looking over my Brazilian CD collection and asking why I didn’t have more Chico Buarque records.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 3/16/18

1. Rubén Blades / “El Padre Antonio Y El Monaguillo Andres” / Buscando America / Elektra

This song describes “the arrival in a Latin American country of an idealistic Spanish priest (a fictional representation of Archbishop Romero), his sermons condemning violence there, his talks about love and justice, and, finally, the murders of the priest and acolyte during a Mass” (from Wikimedia). Click HERE for the full lyrics to “El Padre Antonio y su Monaguillo Andres” as translated by Rubén Blades. Original music and Spanish lyrics by Rubén Blades.

Blades’s song is siempre—forever timely—as Salvadorans continue to suffer from violence and economic inequalities. Refugees from the 80’s civil war who settled in the U.S. are now facing deportation by the current administration, which blames Salvadoran immigrants for the growth of the MS-13 gang and the murders committed by them. Ironically, the MS-13 gangs actually started here in Los Angeles, formed by refugees from the civil war fueled in part by the U.S. When deported back to El Salvador after their refugee status ended, young Salvadorians took their gang activities back home. Naming El Salvador as one of the “shithole” countries, President Trump has now called for the expulsion of 262,000 Salvadoran immigrants.

2. Rubén Blades / “Buscando América” / Buscando América / Elektra

The title track from Buscando América (Searching for America) is about the promise of the American dream and the hopes, aspirations, and disappointments of the immigrants who come in search of this dream—in this case from the perspective of people in Central American countries who’ve longed for the freedom and opportunity America once stood for. Click HERE to read the full lyrics.

3. Rubén Blades / “Ollie’s Doo-Wop” / Nothing But The Truth / Elektra

This final track of our Blades playlist comes from a later album, Nothing But the Truth. “Ollie’s Doo-Wop” is about Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair of the late 1980’s in which funds from the secret sale of weapons to Iran were used to fund Nicaraguan rebels. Click HERE for the full lyrics.