A music documentary directed and written by Abner Benaim looks at the Ruben Blades legacy and his difficulty accepting it in Ruben Blades is Not My Name (Yo no me llamo Rubén Blades)
You’ll notice that Paul Simon and Sting (along with Residente and Gilberto Santa Rosa) have their names up top. There are many talking heads but Simon and Sting each are on screen for maybe a minute or two and I was bothered that their names were so prominent in order to draw in an American audience (at least that’s the assumption I’m making).
This was the opening night of the New York Latino Film Festival so, in addition to the film, we were treated to a Q&A with Benaim and Ruben.
The movie house, AMC 25, has 25 theaters inside and our tickets said Theater 14. We kept going up escalator after escalator. On one floor we saw a mass of reporters and photographers and Peter thought that might be Ruben but I thought he was still out touring. Going up the escalator we saw Ruben, Benaim, and Calixto Chinchilla, the founder of the festival.
Whenever Peter asked someone where the movie was he pronounced Ruben’s last name as BLAH-des. I kept telling him that it’s pronounced blades, like in English. Later, during the Q&A, when Ruben was talking about himself, he pronounced his name both ways but his grandfather was “blades” and that is how his name is pronounced. He said he was okay with either because he always pronounces Tide as TEE-deh.
Going up the escalator we also saw a VIP room with a DJ. The movie was supposed to start at 7:30pm. At that time they were still waiting for the VIPs to leave their Hennessy VIP room. By the time everyone was seated it was 8pm. And then the speeches and awards were handed out. Chinchilla said he was a 23yo kid when he approached HBO about sponsoring the festival the first year, 15 years ago. I had thought he was about 50 years old but I did the math in my head and whispered to Peter, “He’s only 38? He looks terrible!” Peter was trying desperately to stifle his laughter, which made me want to laugh and I had to stifle mine.
The representative from HBO was very gracious in accepting his award telling us that he had nothing to do with originally sponsoring the festival. He said he didn’t want to be just another man taking credit for what a woman had done. And then he named all the women who had been in the room when Chinchilla had asked for HBO’s sponsorship. He also told us what each of them are doing now. Many have moved up the HBO corporate ladder.
Finally Benaim and Ruben came out. Ruben said he had not seen the documentary and was waiting until everyone had forgotten it exists to see it. He gave Benaim no instructions except one – find people who hate me and interview them also for the film. Benaim said he could not find anyone willing to speak on camera who hated Ruben. (I’m sure Willie Colón would have had some unkind words. Ruben has managed to outlive many of the other haters.)
Ruben also said that he didn’t know where the title of the film came from although he does plan to change his name when he starts recording other types of music. If he tours under the name Ruben Blades, people will want to hear “Pedro Navaja” (based on “Mack the Knife”) and he wants to be able to tour doing new stuff and not play the old. For his next chapter he may be Paco de Lucía. In his father’s barrio, everyone was called Paco. So the way to differentiate one from the other was to add their mother’s name. His father was Paco de Lucía. (I think I got the mother’s name correct.)
Chinchilla told Ruben that he looked good and Ruben said it was because he never did drugs. Ruben spoke in both Spanish and English – translating his own sentences/phrases. Occasionally he’d lapse into just Spanish or just English.
The documentary is in Spanish with English subtitles.
The film explores Ruben Blades’ life as a songwriter, singer, musician, actor, political candidate, activist, and lawyer. They don’t delve very deeply into the break he took to study law at Harvard but there is a scene when some of his things like handwritten song lyrics are donated to his archives, which are kept at Harvard.
We see him before he goes on stage and various people ask for photos and autographs and he graciously poses and signs. He walks down the streets of his native Panama or his adopted home of NYC and people stop him to talk or shake his hand or take a selfie. In one instance, the photo is taken and then Ruben insists on another because he was wearing a baseball cap and he wants to make sure he’s recognizable.
He does not have a press agent or assistants. He generally walks the streets and rides the subways alone. (Why don’t I ever see him in the street or on the subway?)
He lets the cameras into his private room upstairs in his house – it’s filled not only with memorabilia and old family photos but shelves and shelves of old comics. He started collecting as a child and his mother threw away most of his collection but he started it up again. He’s got Casper and lots of action heroes. During the Q&A, he said his favorite was Action Comics No. 1 because it introduced Superman.
Ruben was politicized in 1964 when Panamanian high school students tried to fly the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone and were attacked by US students and then the US Army was called in. Nineteen Panamanians were killed and many more wounded.
Ruben started in the mailroom at Fania Records and when they found out he wrote songs, he gave them to many of the Fania artists. He recorded backup vocals with many of those artists. When a lead vocalist was needed for a gig at Madison Square Garden, he was called upon. So his first live singing gig was in front of 19,000 people. He went up on the lyrics (so he repeated the first verse until he could remember them) and forgetting the lyrics has never happened again. Of course, in the film we see using a teleprompter.
At 70 years old, more of his life is behind him than in front of him. There are many things he wants to do while he’s still healthy. He agreed to the documentary for a several reasons but most importantly for his son (who he did not meet until his son was an adult – Ruben didn’t know he existed) and his granddaughter. He wanted to give his son an opportunity to talk. In the documentary he tells his granddaughter that she looks just like his mother. When his son appeared out of nowhere claiming to be Ruben’s son, Ruben contacted his lawyers and asked right away for a blood test. And he accepted his son right away and is very sorry that he missed out on so much of his son’s life.
There are hints at Ruben’s womanizing – his wife hints at it and Ruben has songs (“Buscando Guayaba”) that hint at it. But just like not including people who hate him, Benaim decides not to view any negative aspects of Ruben’s life. “It is not that type of documentary,” Benaim told us.
Most importantly, there’s the music. We hear many of the favorites and the stories behind the songs. Not only is he an important figure in Latin music (primarily salsa) but he is an important figure for Latin Americans. As Ruben explained during the Q&A – Latinos are women, men, straight, gay, transgender, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, black and white but so often we act alone. Cubans for Cubans, Panamanians for Panamanians, Puerto Ricans for Puerto Ricans, etc. One finger cannot do any heavy lifting. You need an entire hand. Ruben is a believer in pan-America and the strength derived from that. His song “Tiburón” warns those in the Caribbean to beware of a shark (the US) swimming in their waters. In “Plástico” (a song against consumerism and bigotry) he shouts out the names of all the Latin American countries so that they know he’s speaking to all of them and not just to the salseros.
The film ends with Ruben singing “El Cantante” a capella outside of his Chelsea home and, although the song was made famous by Hector Lavoe, for me, the song now wholly belongs to Ruben (who wrote the song).
The documentary made me think a lot about my life. At 60yo, I also have more of my life behind me than in front of me – even if I live for 30 more years. And who knows how many of those 30 will be healthy enough years that I can do what I want to do?
Whether or not you’re a fan of salsa or of Ruben Blades, I think you will enjoy this documentary. It looks at a life of achievement and at a man who is not done making contributions to our culture and our politics.
The interviewer for the Q&A was a young man, Flaco Navaja. [edit: I got the name wrong in the original post] He started out by asking Benaim if this was his first documentary and Benaim said it was his eighth or ninth. That the interviewer could not even be bothered to look at the director’s Wikipedia page made me wince. And not like him very much.
There’s a scene in the movie where Ruben dances while holding a framed photo – I believe it is his parents. Someone asked if he went dancing and Ruben said he does not dance and that he must have been drunk during that scene. We all insisted that he was a very good dancer and he admitted he had been taught a few moves. The audience member told him to go to the clubs because there are a lot of pretty girls who would dance with him and he replied that pretty girls don’t dance with men who don’t know how to dance.
What stimulates him? Curiosity. He is not afraid of death because, unlike most people, he does not see it as a dead end.
Who would he like to work with? Most are dead like John Lennon and Duke Ellington. The Beatles were a huge influence on him. And he did get to work with a lot of wonderful people like Willie Colón and Celia Cruz. And now René Pérez (Residente from Calle 13).
Ruben said that when he dies he would like someone to put together all the characters from his songs. They are all linked but he doesn’t know how they’re linked. It’s for someone else to figure out. There is a place called Hispania, where all these people live.
He is grateful for everything this country has given him and happily pays his taxes. He says that since he doesn’t do drugs, the only way the government could go after him is for not paying taxes, so he tells his accountant to pay them all.
Advice for young artists? He signed a contract with Morris Levy (Roulette Records). (I immediately groaned – many in the audience didn’t know who he was.) Today things are better about being an independent artist – you can record at home and you’re not dependent on a label to get your music out. Follow your dream. Be serious about what you are doing. Be the best. Be fearless. Don’t copy other people forever – develop your own voice. Never underestimate your audience (many people thought his songs – especially the political ones – were too much for people to understand). Perform as much as you can. Develop a sense of respect for what you do. Don’t lose faith. Be honest with yourself. If you’re a writer – read as much as you can. And see as much as you can.
He said do you know what my first job was (as a way to show us how he moved from the mailroom to the stage) and we answered because it was in the film. “Oh, so you know.” It was funny that he still he doesn’t know what’s in the film.
“The greatest violence done to a people is that someone else writes their history.”
“I only visit fame. I don’t live there.”
By Carene Lydia Lopez