Political Songs | Patria – Rubén Blades

Unlike South Africa, many countries have the foresight to appoint specialists to their arts, culture and tourism ministries. A fine example is Panamanian musician and activist Rubén Blades.

Poor us. South African arts and culture gets little attention. While a small budget – R4.6 billion – is an impediment, an arts and culture minister with commitment and especially expertise in the field would have made a major difference. 

But based on his Twitter timeline, in Nathi Mthethwa we have a minister of condolences, commemorations, obits and jazz festivals. He also finds time to do retweets of the “Go Bokke!” variety or his toadyish deputy’s “Agreed Minister!” tweets. A look at the department’s website reveals not a heck of a lot else has been happening in this portfolio since his appointment in 2014.

Before being dumped at arts and culture (plus sports as from February), Mthethwa was minister of police from 2009. It was on his watch that trigger-happy police officers mowed down 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana in 2012. Mthethwa recently got some dishonourable mentions at the State Capture Commission – security upgrades were allegedly done to his KwaZulu-Natal private home in 2010 with money from police’s Crime Intelligence.

This week it was also revealed that in 2009 he allegedly scored a fancy Mercedes-Benz from Crime Intelligence. Colonel Dhanajaya Naidoo told the inquiry that Mthethwa returned the vehicle because journalists were following him. The minister has denied these claims.

Artistic appointments

Mthethwa appears to have struggled to make the transition from managing people with itching fingers on triggers to creators of paintings, poems and songs. It is of course possible to find and appoint people from arts and culture – specialists from the field – to these cabinet posts.

Musician, author and painter Mário Lúcio was culture minister of the culturally sophisticated African island of Cape Verde. Singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil served in a similar portfolio for five years in the administration of President Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Also in Latin America, prominent singer Susana Baca became Peru’s minister of culture in 2011.

Senegalese music superstar Youssou N’Dour was made his country’s minister of culture and tourism. Another musician appointed to his country’s cabinet was Peter Garrett, better known as the singer and leader of the globally popular Australian rock band Midnight Oil. He served in two portfolios: environment, heritage and the arts, and school education, early childhood and youth.

Another fine example is Rubén Blades, 71, a singer, songwriter, musician, film actor, left-wing activist and successful tourism minister in Panama. He is one of the most influential and successful salsa singers of all time, winning nine US Grammy Awards, plus five Latin Grammys. His music is a mix of salsa, Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz, folk, rock and pop.

The popular and protest

Blades is highly regarded for his ability to integrate popular themes and protest into his music. His socially conscious lyrics, according to the reference site Thought Co, comment on poverty and violence in Latino communities across the diaspora and on US imperialism in Latin America. Aggressive US foreign policy in Central America in the 1970s and 80s – particularly its involvement in the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala – affected Blades deeply.

“I never considered myself a political singer because I am not an ideological singer. 

I’m not into propaganda,” he said in a recent interview for a New York University podcast. “But the songs are, it’s impossible to escape the political implications, consequences when you live in an environment that is so affected by politics.”

Blades has a master’s degree in international law from Harvard University. He has played in a variety of films including The Milagro Beanfield War and Hands of Stone, and has worked with directors such as Robert Redford, Spike Lee and Ridley Scott.

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He left Panama in 1974 as a young man, following his family into exile in the US to escape the military dictatorship at home. His law degree meant nothing in America, so Blades found a job in the mailroom at Fania Records in New York, where he would eventually become one of their best-selling artists. 

Blades formed a partnership with fellow young gun, Willie Colón. The two created the 1978 album Siembra that has been called the Sergeant Pepper of salsa, after the Beatles’ famous album. It has sold over 25 million copies and included the track Pablo Navaja, a song that would make Blades a superstar across Latin America.

Based on the song Mack the Knife and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Pedro Navaja demonstrated the enormous influence salsa could have as a vehicle for social commentary, according to a Public Service Broadcasting tribute in the US. It tells the story of a small-time gangster shot by a sex worker in a dark Barrio night.

“The bully got bullied,” said Blades, “and that was happening in all levels of society: governments were treating people badly, authorities were not doing what they were supposed to do and people saw in that example, a way of getting even.”

Rooted in justice 

It was this belief in justice that prompted Blades to enter politics. In 1993, he returned to Panama, founded a political party, Papa Egoró (meaning “Mother Earth” in the Embera language of Panama’s indigenous population), and ran for president in 1994.

Campaigning with songs and guitar, Blades used his 1977 hit Pablo Pueblo, a tribute to a working-class father who returns to his home after a long day at work, as his unofficial campaign song. He managed to attract 17% of the vote, coming third out of seven candidates.

From art to tourism 

In September 2004, he was appointed Panama’s minister of tourism for a five-year term by president Martin Torrijos. It was an important post since tourism is the country’s main economic driver. Blades didn’t want to sacrifice his country’s natural environment in exchange for foreign investment, wrote Thought Co. He stressed the development of eco-tourism and cultural tourism over large-scale tourist amenities. By the time he left the post five years later, tourism’s contribution to Panama’s GDP had nearly doubled.

He turned 70 last year, but the prolific Blades still composes and performs his musical tales. On his birthday, he told Billboard magazine: 

“The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told me that I was not just writing songs: he said I wrote chronicles. So, instead of writing about escapism and the usual love platitudes, my interest was the city, the urban drama, sort of a musical journalism with a tinge of literature thrown in. All of that which made the city interesting for me continues to exist today for a new generation.”

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One of the most outstanding of Blade’s songs is the mesmerising folk tune, Patria (translated as “Motherland”), from his 1988 album Antecedente. It’s not surprising that many Panamanians consider this song as their unofficial national anthem.

Some time ago a child asked me

For the meaning of the word “Motherland”

He surprised me with this question

And with my soul in my throat

I told him this

A neighbourhood flower, little brother

Motherland is so many beautiful things

Like that old tree which the poem speaks about

Like the love you still cherish after grandma has died

Motherland is so many beautiful things.

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