PANAMA CITY – Panamanian Tourism Minister Ruben Blades, who happens also to be a big salsa star and a Harvard-educated lawyer, is converting some of the characters he enshrined in song into ambassadors of his nation’s tourism attractions.
The Panamanian artist, who began singing with orchestras here in 1966, wants to make use of popular characters from his songs like “Pedro Navaja” (Pete the Razor) and “Pablo Pueblo” to promote his country.
The idea is to create a kind of “musical map,” which Blades defines as the “(tourism) route of the songwriter.” It will serve as a guide for potential tourists, for whom it will bring to life the streets and buildings in the Old Town of Panama City, where the current Tourism Minister was born and which inspired his songs.
The idea is to produce a 15-minute film to be shown on airline flights, in cruise ships and as promotional material for national and international tour operators. The production is expected to be ready by the end of January.
The singer-songwriter won’t be the star – he will appear only fleetingly between scenes for two or three seconds. Blades, winner of six Grammy awards, was born in 1948 in a modest home in the San Felipe neighborhood facing the Bay of Panama where the Old Town stands, an urban district from Spanish colonial days that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 1997.
He spent his first years there when the place was bubbling with bohemian life and entertainment. These were the surroundings that inspired his best-known songs about local characters who with time became icons of “urban salsa,” and whom today he is bringing back to promote his country as a tourist destination.
Blades said last week that San Felipe “is where all my songs take place, through here walked Pablo Pueblo, down this street went Pedro Navaja, here you would find Juan Pachanga and Loco Sebastian in the public market.”
Pedro Navaja, with his rolling gait, “wide-brimmed hat tipped to one side,” and a “gold tooth that glitters when he laughs,” according to the lyrics of a song that appeared in his musical album “Siembra,” or Sowing Season (1977), is one of the characters created by Blades that most caught on with fans.
Others include Ligia Elena, a high society girl who ran away with a trumpet player; Juan González, a guerrilla; the workingman Pablo Pueblo; the prostitute Juana Mayo, and Juan Pachanga, a confirmed bohemian.
They were all born in San Felipe, an area that now seeks to become a tourist attraction, although there still remain pockets of poverty where street gangs rule. Blades is well aware of this, and from his office at the Panamanian Institute of Tourism (IPAT) and together with the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), decided to incorporate former gang members from the neighborhood in a training program aimed at turning them into guides on his “musical route.”
Panama’s former gang members will begin their jobs as tourist guides in the Old Town starting February.
On Jan. 13, a group of 16 of these youths were the first to receive their training certificates, of 120 taking part in the program “For Hope,” developed by MIDES and the Catholic Church along with government and private institutions.
Blades explained that the tourism institute contracted them to work in the Old Town for six months, starting Feb. 15, and that the tourism institute promises to continue supporting the program.