Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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RODRÍGUEZ, Arsenio

(b Ignacio Loyola Rodríguez, 30 August 1911, Güira de Macurije, Matanzas Province, Cuba; d 31 December 1970, Los Angeles) Virtuoso tres player, also bass, conga, other percussion; bandleader, vocalist, composer/arranger; known as 'El Ciego Maravilloso' ('The Marvellous Blind Man'). His grandfather came from the Congo; he was the fourth of 18 children, losing his sight at age seven. Carpenter/instrument maker Victor Feliciano taught him bass, percussion and tres guitar in 1926 (which Arsenio's father paid Feliciano to make for him); that year he attended rehearsals by influential son exponents Sexteto Habanero. He opted for the tres and became an acknowledged master. Began composing '27, boleros at first, then other rhythms; his compositions first recorded '37 by friend/pupil Miguelito Valdés (1910-78), who continued to record his songs throughout his career; he recorded Arsenio's prize-winning 'Bruca Manigua' (an instant hit '37) on numerous occasions, interpretations of this and other Arsenio tunes by Valdés included on CD collections Memories Of Cuba 1937-44 '91, Adios Africa 1937-40 '94 and Fufuñando 1937-1940 '95 by Orquesta Casino de la Playa on Tumbao and Miguelito Valdés '94 (with Orq. Casino de la Playa '38-40) and Orquesta Casino de la Playa '95 on the UK Harlequin label. Arsenio organized Sexteto Boston early '30s, disbanded '37 to join José Interian's Septeto Bellamar; founded the Cuban conjunto style '40 by adding a cowbell, conga, second and third trumpets and piano to the traditional sexteto or septeto of trumpet, tres, guitar, maracas, bass and bongo; he strengthened the African elements of the son montuno form by expanding improvised, rhythmic montuno section.

Some credit him with introducing the mambo rhythm from Congolese-derived religious groups into Cuban dance halls. His conjunto in the 1940s included legendary sonero Miguelito Cuní (b 8 May 1920, Pinar del Río, Cuba; d 5 March 1984, Havana), influential pianist/composer Luis 'Lilí' Martínez Griñán, singer René Scull (Arsenio's cousin), guitarist/ singer/ composer Marcelino Guerra (b c1913, Cienfuegos, Cuba; d 30 June 1996, Spain: his last recording was Rapindey '95 on Nubenegra/Intuition), trumpeter Benetín Bustillo, trumpeter/composer Félix Chappottín (b 31 March 1909, Havana, Cuba; d 1982, Cuba; Chano Pozo's brother), trumpeter Alfredo 'Chocolate' Armenteros, bassist/composer Lazaro Prieto, bongocero Antonio Suárez 'Papa Kila', conguero/composer Israel 'Quique' Rodríguez (Arsenio's brother, aka Israel Moises Travieso). Arsenio's mid-'40s to '51 RCA Victor recordings were compiled on CDs A Todo Los Barrios '74 (reissued '92) on BMG, Montuneando 1946-50 '93 and Dundunbanza 1946-51 '94, latter two on Tumbao. While waiting in NYC February 1947 to find whether his eyesight could be restored, he sessioned with Chano Pozo, Machito's orchestra, Miguelito Valdés and Tito Rodríguez for Gabriel Oller's Coda label, these previously rare recordings reissued '92 on Tumbao CD Legendary Sessions 1947-53, also including six tracks by Arsenio's conjunto originally released by Oller's SMC label in 1948 under the name of Estrellas del Ritmo, as he was contracted to RCA at the time. Leaving his group to Chappottín, Arsenio relocated to NYC '52, where his initial recordings included the 10-inch LP Montunos Cubanos '53 for SMC (also incorporated on Legendary Sessions) and two 10-inch albums for Tico, reissued together '92 as Como Se Goza En El Barrio on Tumbao; Scull provided vocals on both. Exitos De Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto on Tropical was a collection of '50s recordings for Seeco. Arsenio's band was just one among many on the NYC Latin music scene, and he never succeeded in equalling the popularity he enjoyed in Cuba. His last major success was Sabroso y Caliente '57 for Puchito (on an Antilla CD '90s); thereafter his career declined and remained largely in the doldrums; he was rarely without gigs, but the pay was derisory. Despite his lack of commercial success in NYC Arsenio gained legendary status as an innovator and composer; his influence was particularly prominent during the genre's 'return to roots' típico revivals of the late '60s, early '70s and early '80s, when many salsa bands emulated the format of his '40s conjunto and included his compositions in their repertoires, e.g. Sonora Ponceña (see Papo Lucca) had a hit '70 with a cover of Arsenio's classic 'Hay Fuego En El 23' from Sabroso y Caliente; nevertheless, Rodríguez saw very little of the money earned by recordings of his songs.

Arsenio and five members of his NYC conjunto (including his brothers Quique and percussionist/composer/singer Raúl 'Caesar' Travieso) sessioned '57 on percussionist Sabú Martínez's Palo Congo on Blue Note; Sabú later sessioned on Cumbanchando con Arsenio (Fiesta en Harlem) '62, produced by Oller for SMC, Arsenio wrote and arranged all the tracks and sang on one cut. He wrote all the tracks on La Pachanga c'63, his debut on Tico; his early '60s debut on Ansonia was Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto ('90s CD reissue also included Vol. 2); Afro-Cuban singer Monguito made his recording debut on Arsenio's Primitivo '63 on Roost (CD reissue on P-Vine '95). Quindembo/Afro Magic/La Magia De Arsenio Rodríguez '63 on Epic (CD on Sony Tropical '95) was the first LP on which he played tres as the featured instrument; he called the music quindembo, allegedly a Congolese word for a mixture of many things: instrumentation including bass, drums and two saxes; as well as playing tres he wrote and sang on all the tracks, including 'Bruca Manigua'. He played tres on mid-'60s Patato And Totico on Verve (CD reissue on Mediterraneo '92), by Afro-Cuban conga player Carlos 'Patato' Valdez and percussionist/singer Totico (Eugenio Arango). His mid-'60s Ansonia follow-up Vol. 2 used trumpet, sax and tres combination; among the singers were Marcelino Guerra and Dominican Santiago Ceron (the latter made successful solo LPs early '80s with Luis 'Perico' Ortiz). Viva Arsenio! '67 was produced by Bert Berns for his Bang label, including Arsenio's novel cover of Berns's co-penned 'Hang On Sloopy'; Arsenio Dice ... /Arsenio Says... c'68 on Tico was his final recording (CD reissue on P-Vine '93 included his first Tico album). Arsenio relocated to Los Angeles late '60s, where he died in poverty of pneumonia; Larry Harlow made Tribute To Arsenio Rodríguez '71 on Fania; Tito Puente paid homage with song 'Guaguancó Arsenio' on his Ce' Magnifique '81 on Tico, sung by Camilo Azuquita.