Arsenio Rodríguez “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Blind One, 1911-1970) was a Cuban tres player, composer and bandleader whose Africanization of son montuno Cuban folk music and development of the conjunto band format to support the richer sound, laid the foundations for Latin jazz and salsa.
What Rodríguez did in the 1930s and 40s was done again by Chucho Valdés in Cuba by his band Irakere in the 1970s when they evolved Cuban “salsa” into timba.
FANIA All-Star Larry Harlow’s nickname “El Judio Marvilloso” (The Marvelous Jew) is a reference to Rodríguez. Harlow studied music in Cuba and was heavily influenced by Rodríguez. Salsa, the salsa dura of FANIA and others in the 1970s has much more Africa in it than salsa does today.
A Son of Matanzas
Rodríguez was born in Güira de Macurijes, Matanzas, Cuba on August 31, 1911. Matanzas is the home of rumba. He was blinded as a child after a horse kicked him in the head. That’s how he later got his nickname “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Blind One). But when you lose one sense, the others strengthen. He became a master tres player (Cuban guitar).
A Son of Kongo
His family was Kongo which is more Central African than the West African cultures which dominate the Caribbean. We keep reading about Kongo musicians, everywhere in the Caribbean.
Most human culture began as rituals of faith, community and matchmaking. The rhythms in Rodríguez came from the Orisha faiths Palo Monte or Las Reglas de Congo. Certain rhythms and dances are only done in celebrations of faith, and have been done the same way since the beginning of human time.
He started as a tumbadora player (the Cuban bass drum) in family and community gatherings, and learned to play the tres.
The son of Eastern Cuba, of which Buena Vista Social Club is the best known modern example, has a softer, more balladic sound. It’s the first blend of African rhythms with Spanish guitar. Rodríguez brought back the rhythmic emphasis and syncopation. European music is on the downbeat. Afro-Caribbean music is on the upbeat. It’s syncopated. That’s also a Haitian Diaspora influence.
The German baroque composer Bach excelled at counterpoint, the blending of two separate melodic lines, and contrapuntal music, the blending of multiple lines with some sharing of the melody. You hear this in jazz. Someone establishes the melody. You play a little of it and add your thing before coming back and handing the melody to someone else, and so on. Meanwhile everyone is playing along, but it all fits together.
Rodríguez wrote contrapuntal parts into son montuno with a strong beat. Dancers love it. A good dancer can dance two rhythms in their body at the same time. A really good dancer may keep more rhythms going at the same time. It’s an African thing. Try it. It’s really hard. It requires two or three brains.
Arsenio Rodríguez, a Master of Both Rhythm and Melody
That’s Arsenio’s rhythmic training as a drummer, and his skill with melody as a tres player. If you’ve ever spent time in a rainforest, it’s the sound of the rainforest. There are all these different creatures doing their own thing, but it all blends together into the most beautiful natural symphony. That is Latin music.
To play his unique vision, Rodríguez needed more instruments. He added conga drums and expanded the rhythm section and added more trumpets to create the Latin front line.
Rodríguez rose to prominence with his composition “Bruca maniguá” sung by Miguelito Valdés with Orquesta Casino de la Playa in 1937. The song, which was a cry for freedom, was an international hit. “Yo soy Carabali” is a reference to the Calabar River delta at the Nigerian border with Cameroon. The popular Carabalí Rainforest Park in Puerto Rico must be a similar reference.
Listen to it. Here’s the original hit recording. Notice how slow the tempo is and the orchestral influences. This is early Rodríguez.
Listen to this later version by the original singer. Here the son montuno form of salsa is easily recognizable.
Orquesta Casino was a bridge from Cuban dance music to American big band jazz. It was one of those orchestras that developed many artists who went on to their own fame. For example, Dámaso Pérez Prado (Mambo No. 5) played and arranged in the band for a while before going on to fame in Mexico. That may be the basis of Rodríguez’ claim to be the true originator of mambo.
Arsenio Rodríguez Popularizes the Conjunto
In 1940, Rodríguez started his own band. It wasn’t the first conjunto, but it became the most popular one.
New York City and the Mambo Craze
He began visiting New York City in 1947 and moved here in 1952. He got to play with Latin jazz legends Mario Bauzá and Machito, and Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie through the height of the Mambo Craze out of the Palladium Ballroom.
When the Mambo Craze faded, he moved to Los Angeles for a new start and died there in 1970. The maestro is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Woodlands, just west of White Plains.
Before and After Arsenio Rodríguez
What Arsenio Rodríguez did in Cuba in the 1940s became the salsa of New York City in the 1970s. In the same way that there was jazz before Louis Armstrong and jazz after Louis Armstrong, there was Latin music before Arsenio Rodríguez and after Arsenio Rodríguez.