Ignacio de Loyola Rodríguez Scull aka Arsenio Rodríguez (30 August, 1911, Güira de Macurijes, Matanzas, Cuba – 30 December, 1970, Los Angeles, CA, USA) was a Cuban musician, bandleader and prolific composer who developed the son montuno and other Afro-Cuban-based rhythms. Today he is seen as one of the most important figures in Latin music, with his influence reaching beyond the Spanish speaking world to also include African popular music of the 20th Century, though when he died he was not widely known by the public for his contibutions and influence. He is also recognized (along with Israel ‘Cachao’ López and Dámaso Pérez Prado) as one of the creators of mambo, what Rodríguez himself often referred to as ritmo diablo. Some of his best-known, influential and most-often covered recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s are included here, among them “Dame Un Cachito Pa’ Huele’,” “Dundunbanza,” “El Reloj De Pastora,” “Cambia El Paso,” and “Hay Fuego En El 23.”
Blinded as a child by a kick in the head from a mule, Rodríguez nevertheless learned to play guitar, bass, maracas, bongó, and tumbadora (conga drum) by age 15, mastering the more difficult tres guitar soon after. His skill and innovation earned him the nickname “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Blind Man). Rodríguez was proud of his African ancestry, and utilized the knowledge tought him by his grandfather, a Congolese slave. Arsenio began performing his own compositions early, joining El Sexteto Boston in 1928, which he led and later disbanded in 1937, feeling it was too difficult to lead a group as a blind man in the city. After a 3 years with Septeto Bellamar, he decided to create his own ‘conjunto’ (group), which he led until 1947. Arsenio purposefully did not call his group a sextet or septet like the older son outfits because his instrumental approach and lineup was intentionally new. By adding two more trumpets, piano, and tumbador to the son format, where the bongo player also played the cowbell during the montuno section, and arranging the brass in an intricate interplay, he created a stronger, fresher sound that became the basic lineup of many groups in the salsa era of the 60s and 70s. This new format was loud and hard, described afro (African) in its performance style and macho (male) in its intesity, characteristics preferred by the young Afro-Cuban dancers his band catered to.
Seeking treatment for his blindness, Arsenio travelled to New York in 1947. Once in La Gran Manzana, Dr. Ramón Castroviejo informed him that unfortunately he could not repair Rodríguez’s damaged optical nerves, and soon after returning to Havana in the early 1950s, he decided to abandon his beloved Caribbean island for greater opportunities in the U.S., residing in The Bronx after a disheartening period in Tampa, Florida where as a black man he faced the racial indignities of the Jim Crow South and had very little opportunity to perform. Before leaving Cuba though, he made some very important recordings with his new lineup for RCA Victor. Once in New York, he continued to create exciting music, recording for the Tico, Seeco, Coda, SMC, and Ansonia labels, bringing with him many of the innovative ideas begun back home, and influencing later generations (for instance Eddie Palmieri, Larry harlow, and Johnny Pacheco). Rodríguez had an ability for discovering or hiring talented musicians and vocalists who would go on to become famous in their own right (Lino Frías, Marcelino Guerra, Miguelito Cuní, Felíx Chappottín, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros, Luis ‘Lili’ Martínez), as well as collaborating with some outstanding musicians such as Luciano ‘Chano’ Pozo, Miguelito Valdés, Louis ‘Sabu’ Martínez, Israel ‘Cachao’ López, Mauricio Smith, and Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdés.
Never one to stand still creatively, by the early 1960s Arsenio began introducing other experimental modes of expression taken from his new adopted home (jazz, r&b, rock)into his conjunto, incorporating saxophones and ‘walking’ bass, as well as amplifying his guitar and even singing a few tunes himself (in a jocular, gruff tone). True to his racial pride, he often utilised African religious terms, melodies, rhythms and sonorities. He occasionally got big gigs at the Palladium or other large venues but by the later ‘60s concert jobs were scarce and paid poorly. Unlike the earlier days in Cuba when his groups played live almost every day on the radio, he never received much radio exposure in the U.S., which contributed to his obscurity. Though Arsenio was not particularly interested in joining the bandwagon to record the pachanga and boogaloo crazes of the younger genration, he did record some youth-oriented songs during the mid and late 60s, some of which are represented here. However he did not particularly want to update or change his sound to fit the emerging salsa scene, much of which was shifting from Latin soul to more ‘típico’ sounds inspired by the Cuban son conjunto sound that he himself had helped develop and modernize in previous decades. Leaving the barrios of New York behind and moving to Los Angeles in 1969 - 1970 to try his luck on the West Coast amongst the Chicanos (he had lived there briefly with his brothers Kiki and Raúl from 1964-1966), Rodríguez unfortunately remained relatively unknown in California, and by most accounts audiences were indifferent to his by now old-style Cuban music, especially with the rise of Latin rock, which was ironic since he had often played his tres with distorted, sustained amplification not unlike that in use by guitarists like Carlos Santana and others.
Throughout his life Arsenio had never been a particularly healthy man, and by his late 50’s he was over-weight and slowing down; he died soon afer arriving in Los Angeles, succumbing to a stroke brought on by diabetes. Rodríguez’s estranged wife Anadina brought his body back to New York and he was buried in Ferncliff Cemetary initially in an unmarked grave. However, contrary to popular belief he did not die poor, since he did receive a modest income from his composition royalties, and in the end his plot was marked with a suitable stone. In the late 60s and early 70s, Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican bandleader and musical director of Fania Records, had been recording versions of the conjunto and son montuno sound that Rodríguez and others like La Sonora Matancera had pioneered decades before, complete with trumpets and tres, and similar arrangements. Soon after Rodríguez’s death, pianist and orchestra leader Larry Harlow recorded a tribute album (Tribute To Arsenio Rodríguez, 1971); the following year Tico compiled an LP of Arsenio cover-tunes by various artists (Recordando A Arsenio). In addition, many of Rodríguez’s compositions (and songs by others he made famous) were re-recorded in an updated Nuyorican style by the current stars of salsa, such as Ray Barretto, Ismael Miranda, La Sonora Ponceña, Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound, and Celia Cruz.
Arsenio's innovative techniques, arrangements and compositions have had far reaching consequences because not only was the rise of salsa in the late 60s - 70s fueled in part by his Afro-Cuban son conjunto aesthetic, but one could argue that his pioneering influence can still be felt today through the edgy deconstructionist jazz and punk inflected music of Marc Ribot's Cubanos Postizos and Jacob Plasse's thrillingly eclectic ensemble Los Hacheros. These two contemporary New York-based projects re-imagine El Ciego Maravilloso's forward-looking yet rootsy approach, refreshing the music again and taking his spirit into the modern era for audiences outside the Latin tradition, people more often familiar with rock, jazz or soul perspectives than salsa or son cubano.
Pablo "DJ Bongohead" Yglesias
released October 8, 2016
Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto
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