Ignacio de Loyola Rodríguez Scull, known as Arsenio Rodríguez (August 30, 1911 - December 30, 1970) was a Cuban musician who developed the son montuno, and other Afro-Cuban rhythms and is often said to be the true creator of the "Mambo." He was a prolific composer and wrote nearly two hundred songs.
He was born in Güira de Macurijes in the province of Matanzas. As a young child, Rodríguez was blinded when a horse (or possibly a mule) kicked him in the head.
Later, he became a musician, and eventually became one of the most renowned bandleaders on the island earning him the nickname "El Ciego Maravilloso", the Blind Marvel. His music emphasized the Afro-Cuban rhythm as well as the melodic lead of the tres, which he played. In 1928 he played his own compositions with the Sexteto Boston, which disbanded in 1937 because as a blind man he felt unable to be a bandleader, and he joined the Septeto Bellamar of cornettist José Interián. From 1940 to 1947 he led a band again, Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto.
During this period, the standard format for playing son was the Septeto, consisting of trumpet, guitar, tres, bongos, bass, maracas and claves, with two or more band members singing. The general trend in the 1930s had been for the son to stray somewhat from its African roots, adopting a more subdued sound. This would all change around 1940 when Rodriguez added conga drum, piano, and a second (and later third) trumpet to the typical son ensemble, giving birth to the conjunto. The conjunto format revolutionized the son with the added drive provided by the conga's deep tone and the trumpet section's power. Around this time, Rodriguez introduced the son montuno, a son with a montuno section featuring improvised vocals (soneos) by the lead singer (sonero) over a repeated chorus; trumpet, tres, and piano solos also occurred frequently. Rodriguez is also credited, along with bandleaders Antonio Arcaño and Perez Prado with developing the mambo rhythm during this period. Another key innovation was the band's adaptation of the guaguancó to the dance band/conjunto format. The guaguancó is an Afro-Cuban style traditionally performed by voices and percussion; Rodriguez mixed some of its melodic and formal elements with those of the son. These further "Afro-Cubanizations" of the son are among Rodriguez' most important and lasting contributions. The conjunto format, son montuno, and mambo are three essential elements of what would later be called salsa.
He then went to New York where he hoped to get cured from his blindness but was told that his seeing nerves had been completely destroyed. This experience led him to compose the bolero La Vida es un Sueño (Life is a dream). He went on to play with percussionist Chano Pozo and other great musical artists of what became Latin Jazz like Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Mario Bauza.
Arsenio's bassist and close friend for eight years Alfonso "El Panameno" Joseph as well as other members of Arsenio's band, such as Julian Lianos, who performed with Arsenio at the Palladium Ballroom in New York during the 1960's, have had their legacies documented in a national television production called La Epoca, expected to be released in theaters across the US in September 2008 and in Latin America in 2009. He had much success in the US and migrated there in 1952 one of the reasons being the better pay of musicians.
Another feat Arsenio Rodriguez is known for, even more-so than just Latin Jazz, is being the first to add reed and brass instruments to Latin bands and orchestras, as well as the conga (also called tumbadora), which was then primarily used in folkloric Rumba, and occasionaly Santeria music.
He is considered the father of the conjunto, an instrumental format that was revolutionary for its time because it introduced the conga drum, which had previously been considered taboo because of its African origin. His compositions, many of which became standards of the Cuban and New York salsa repertoires, frequently emphasized Afro-Cuban, particularly Congolese, elements in their subject matter.
At the end of the 1960s the Mambo craze more or less petered out, and Rodríguez showed no interest in modern Latin styles like Guaracha or Boogaloo. He tried a new start in Los Angeles. He invited Joseph to fly out to Los Angeles with him but died only a week later. Arsenio died there as in 1970 and was buried in New York. There is much speculation about his financial status during his last years, however David García argues that Rodríguez had a modest income from royalties.
Tito Puente and Azuquita recorded a song after Rodriguez's death called "Guaguanco Arsenio". Ironically, this song has neither the Cuban tres nor is an actual Rumba Guaguanco. In fact, it is more related to salsa music in nature. It does, however, feature reed and brass instruments, reflecting Rodriguez's innovation and style.
Larry Harlow and Ismael Miranda recorded a post-humous song "Tributo a Arsenio Rodriguez", purportedly the first salsa recording using the Cuban tres, in homage to the great composer and tres player. Jazz guitarist Marc Ribot recorded an album of Rodríguez' music called Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos.
Arsenio Rodriguez is a name often mentioned in a major national television production called "La Epoca," which is about the Palladium-era in New York, and Afro-Cuban music and rhythms, Mambo and Salsa as dances and as music and much more, partly discussed in this "segment trailer" of the movie.
The film discusses many of Arsenio's contributions, and features some of the musicians he recorded with such as Alfonso "El Panameno" Joseph, Luis Mangual, Julian Lianos and others. It discusses the controversial subject of how Arsenio Rodriguez is now documented as the originator of mambo, a rhythmic section in a musical arrangement, as seen in another "trailer" of the movie. The film also discusses the great contrasts between dancing "on 1" versus dancing "on 2," and how each is danced, featuring an interview with international dance-duo Freddy Rios and Mike Ramos from the Palladium Mambo Legends.
Others interviewed in the movie, which has been the subject of interviews on radio interviews such as the popular interview of January 26, 2008, on the "840AM Interview " include the daughter of legendary Cuban percussionist Mongo Sanatamaria - Ileana Santamaria, and bongocero Luis Mangual, Alfonso "El Panameno" Joseph Arsenio's bassist), Julian Lianos (Arsenio's vocalist), Leo Flemming (bassist of Johnny Pacheco), Juan "Chiripa" Emilio (trumpeter of Johnny Pacheco and Sonora Matancera) and many others.
NY Times Review (B. Ratliff) Arsenio Rodriguez, El Alma de Cuba (Tumbao)
This new six-disc boxed set by the Cuban bandleader and guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez, is a G.T.O.: a Great Thing, Objectively. First, it gets the stuff out there, collecting in one place nearly every scrap of music Rodríguez made for RCA Victor between 1940 to 1956, before he left Cuba for good (for New York and Los Angeles).
His music has not previously been so well documented, in a large-canvas, year-by-year sense, and RCA has been a poor custodian of it. Second, it treats Rodríguez with a care equal to his importance, with dozens of pictures, extensive information on every recording session, a short biography in Spanish and English.
Rodríguez (1911-1970) played the tres, a Cuban guitar with three pairs of like-tuned strings. He was blind, and, to simplify grandly, the Chuck Berry figure of Cuban dance music, establishing its lasting parameters. His band recorded romantic boleros as a matter of course, but in the early '40s he was also the significant architect of son montuno. He solidified its instrumentation and arrangement into a recognizable form, which you will know instinctively if you've heard any of the New York salsa that drew from it 30 years later. It has two-bar calls-and-responses between voices and trumpets near the beginning, then a buildup into a collective improvisation, which Rodríguez called the diablo, with the bass player accenting the up-beats, working the negative space, giving the music kinetic mystery.
Aside from all this, Rodríguez was a wizardly and instantly instructive guitarist. When he solos here, as in "Cero Guapos en Yateras," "El Cerro Tiene la Llave," "No Toque el Guao" and dozens of other tunes, you respond. If you are a guitar player, it will make you want to play. If you are a dancer, it will make you want to dance. He makes you begin to hear rhythm as he does; he improves you.
Sources: NY Times (B. Ratliff); Descarga; Wikipedia; Verve Music Group;
David García: "Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music", Temple University Press 2006; Orovio, Helio. 1981. Diccionario de la Música Cubana. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas; Orovio, Helio. Diccionario de la música cubana; Biográfico y técnico. 2da. Edición. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1992;
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