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Ruben Blades, Salsa King Spice Up Lehman Center’s 30th Birthday

Ruben Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa
Salsa masters Ruben Blades, left, and Gilberto Santa Rosa. The two Grammy Award-winning singers will help the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts celebrate its 30th anniversary when they perform some of their greatest hits Saturday night. Source: Lehman Center via Bloomberg

Back in the 1980s, when Ruben Blades and his Seis de Solar band were setting the salsa world on fire, the television program “Saturday Night Live” offered them a guest spot, every musician’s dream.

But they were already booked at the Bronx’s Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, which had embraced Blades before he achieved mainstream recognition. He turned down the TV offer.

“The Lehman Center is very, very important,” Blades, 62, said by phone. “The stereotype that we have of the Bronx as not connected to learning and enlightenment is false. The center has been there for the people of the Bronx no matter what conditions exist.”

The Harvard-trained lawyer who stepped down as minister of tourism for his native Panama in 2009 cleared his schedule once again for the center to appear at its 30th anniversary gala concert called “Una Sola Salsa.” Blades will perform with salsa legend Gilberto Santa Rosa.

“Gilberto is a total professional, and you also get to learn from him,” Blades said. “I enjoy collaboration, and that’s why I’ve worked with many artists, such as Elvis Costello or Lou Reed.”

In the past three decades, the 2,300-seat venue located on the Lehman College campus, has hosted Latin music stars and other musicians while offering affordable ticket prices that make performances accessible to the largely Latino community. Lehman College, which is part of the state and federally subsidized City University of New York, gave Blades an honorary degree in 2000.

Seductive Vocals

The Puerto Rico-born Santa Rosa, known for his seductive vocals, will handle the “more romantic side of things” with ballads selected from his 20-plus recordings in the past three decades, Blades said. Santa Rosa’s 2006 CD, “Directo al Corazon,” won a Latin Grammy Award that year for Best Salsa Album and another for Best Tropical Latin Album.

Blades’s set will include some romantic ballads of his own and one of his signature tunes, “Juan Pachanga,” about the foibles of a hard-drinking, carefree man.

Since leaving government service in Panama, Blades has been recording new music and plans to release more than a dozen CDs in the future, including new versions of old songs.

“What continues to really amaze me is the amount of respect and admiration I get,” Blades said. “My songs don’t have an expiration date because they talk about everyday life.”

(“Una Sola Salsa” with Blades and Santa Rosa is tonight at 8 p.m. at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, 250 Bedford Park Blvd. West in the Bronx. Ticket information: +1-718-960-8833).

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