From Christina Aguilera’s R&B version of “Camaleón and Beatriz Luengo, Rozalen and María León’s flamenco rendering of “El Padre Antonio y El Monaguillo Andrés,” to Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives’ tropical reads on hits like “Decisiones,” the Latin Recording Academy’s Person of the Year dinner honoring Ruben Blades highlighted one of the most prodigious, enduring and influential songwriters and catalogs of contemporary Latin music, capable of withstanding the test of time, genres and nationalities.
Blades has earned his spot as “a writer that sings,” in the words of the late Nobel laureate and friend Gabriel García Márquez, and as Wednesday night showed, it’s hard to fail on execution when the prime material is so very compelling.
Still, the apex of the evening was Blades himself, singing his magnus opus “Pedro Navaja” with a vocal fortitude and nuance that’s hard to fathom for a man of 73. He also looks, and acts, much younger, by the way.
But in his acceptance speech, Blades made clear that for him, age is not just a number, but a badge of honor.
“Someone asked me, what is left to do?” said Blades, speaking in Spanish to the 1,000 or so people in attendance at the private gala at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. “Everything. I think it’s very dangerous to think that the applause we get today can represent more than a transitory satisfaction to our ego. We will all reach the moment when we have more past than future. And while many gain fame, they are poverty-stricken for living in it. Fame is a place you visit; it’s not a home. And those who don’t understand that will suffer the consequences.”
Looking at the archival footage that was shown during the evening reminded us of how rich a musical career Blades has had (the evening didn’t even go into his bountiful acting and political paths), rewriting the trajectory of both salsa and Latin music overall with sophisticated arrangements and riveting lyrics in which he told the stories of ordinary people representing a continent. It’s no wonder his 1978 Siembra is still hailed as the top-selling salsa album of all time.
Blades acknowledged the help he’s had along the way. “Defining success and what it means is impossible for me, because success is never the result of a single person or action,” he said, before reading a long list of names — from elementary school teachers to stars and executives big and small — of those who influenced or impacted his career.
It was one of many “pieces of paper,” as he called them (Joaquín Sabina and Residente both also read handwritten speeches), and emotional moments that peppered the evening, with eyes often tearing up among an audience that included stars like Bad Bunny, Juan Luis Guerra and Jay Wheeler.
Farruko, whose rap-infused rendition of “Amor y Control” was one of the high points of the evening, spoke of how his grandfather, who would later commit suicide, would play Blades’ music for him. In his speech (the sheet of paper held up by his brother), Residente, in vintage Residente fashion, incorporated the names of all the characters invented by Blades in his songs. “No one in music has your literary output,” he said. “You taught me that art supersedes everything, even if the story of Superman sells more than that of Ramiro.”
And Sabina, who gave Blades his award, remembered that García Márquez had once told him he would trade on his books for that epic line from “Pedro Navaja”: Con el tumbao que tienen los guapos al caminar (rough translation: With the swagger real men have when they walk).
In addition to being honored as the 2021 Person of the Year, Blades’ albums Salswing! and Salsa Plus! with Roberto Delgado & Orchestra are nominated for album of the year and Best Salsa album, respectively, for the Latin Grammys taking place Thursday night.