Father of the son montuno, prolific composer and lyricist, unequalled tresero, creater of the conjunto format, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Arsenio Rodríguez in Cuban music. Arsenio defined the sound of Cuban music in the 1940s and is both the mother and father of the mambo, even if others would be its most popular figures. The reverbations of his musical revolution can be still be felt today.
Despite all this, Arsenio remains on the margins of the official musical pantheon and is a largely forgotten figure. Very little is known about his life. Sources disagree about his date of birth, the year and even the place of his death, even his name. It's believed that Arsenio was born on 30th August 1911 in Güira de Macurijes, a small town in Matanzas. Arsenio was descended from Congolese tribesmen. His grandfather, who had been transported to Cuba from the Congo as a slave, proudly passed on his knowledge and traditions to all 18 of his grandchildren. Throughout his life Arsenio proudly celebrated his African heritage which permeates his whole music in stark contrast to the bands playing to predominately white audiences in Havana's sophisticated nightclubs and casinos.
At a young age (sources variously say six, seven, eight, twelve or thirteen years old) Arsenio was blinded when kicked in the head by a mule. This tragedy was not to prevent him from becoming an outstanding musician. At the age of 15 Arsenio met Victor Feliciano, a carpenter who also made instruments, from whom he learnt to play guitar, bass, maracas and bongos. Feliciano also taugh Rodriguez how to play tres until he became too ill to tutor him. However it was the tres that would become identified with him. Listening to the treseros Nene Malfugas, Eliseo Silvera and Isaac Oviedo Arsenio created his own very personal style. Such was his mastery that he earned the nickname El Ciego Maravilloso (The Blind Marvel).
During the early 1930s Arsenio formed his first group, Sexteto Boston, performing his own compositions almost exclusively, a characteristic that would come to be a defining one.
In 1937 Arsenio disbanded his sextet to join José Interian's Septeto Bellamar but personal differences soon led to him being fired. However it was an important year for Arsenio in other ways for it saw the very first recordings of his compositions: Arsenio's friend Miguelito Valdés sang Bruca Manigua, Ven Acá Tomas and Fuñfuñando with Orquesta Casino de la Playa. Miguelito recorded many more Arsenio compositions with the Casino de la Playa until his departure for the States in 1940. Arsenio even plays tres on one of them (Se Va El Caramelero).
In 1939 or 1940 Arsenio formed his own group, adding a tumbadora (conga), piano and a second (and later third) trumpet in a completely new formation that became referred to as a conjunto. It was an extraordinary innovation, completely transforming the whole sound and definition of Cuban music.
Arsenio was not the first to incorporate the piano into the typical Cuban sextet/septet (trumpet, guitar, tres, bongos, bass, maracas and claves). This had already been done by the Sexteto Miquito, the precursor of the wonderful Conjunto Casino, as far back as 1935. What was different was the way Arsenio used the piano. The white bands such as the Casino replaced the tres with the piano so that the piano had to sustain riffs, very much in the manner of the piano in salsa music today. Arsenio retained the tres which freed up the piano to play fills and solos in the manner which Rubén Gonzalez can be heard playing today.
The addition of the tumbadora added drive and depth and the two trumpet sound was tremendously exciting. The conjunto format completely eclipsed the charanga, which used violins and flutes instead of horns and was mainly associated with danzón at this time, for more than a decade. Only the emergence of the cha-cha-chá in the mid 1950s would revive its fortunes.
The line-up of that first band was:
trumpets: Rubén Calzado, Miguel Molinet;
tres: Arsenio Rodríguez;
piano: Lino Frías;
guitar and second voice: Marcelino Guerra (formerly of Ignacio Piñeiro's Septeto Nacionál);
bass: Nili Alonso, bass;
tumbadora (conga): Israel "Quique" Rodriguez;
bongo: Antolín Suárez "Papa Kila";
vocals: Miguelito Cuní, Pedro Luis Sarracent.
But if the sound of the band was different, so was the music it was playing. Arsenio's trumpet player Benetín Bustillo (who joined the band in 1943) started copying Antonio Arcano's flute riffs on the trumpet and this inspired Arsenio to create the son montuno rhythm, which he initially called 'el diablo' (the devil).
The montuno was nothing more than a field holler, a simple repeated vocal refrain - sung by the montunos, the peasants from the mountainous east (Oriente) of the island. Incorporated into the son, it was the perfect backdrop both for vocal improvastions (soneos) sung by the lead singer (sonero) and for instrumental improvisations by the lead musicians - tres and trumpet. Arsenio also mixed in many elements from guaguancó - a rumba form played only with percussion and vocals. These several innovations caused nothing less than a revolution in Cuban music. All the essential innovations of the mambo were already in place and indeed many elderly Cubans maintain that the mambo is nothing but the son montuno by another name.
The band made their first recordings in 1940 and their first big hit came in 1942 with the RCA-Victor release Como traiga la yuca, rebaptized Dile a Catalina by the public.
However it was the arrival in the band of pianist Luís Martínez Griñán (Lili Martínez) in 1946 that was to prove decisive. Lili Martínez is one of a trio of three pianists who along with Rubén Gonzalez (who also played breifly with Arsenio in 1945) and Peruchín created the modern Cuban piano sound. Lili was supporting himself working as a waiter in his home town of Guantanamo when a telegram arrived from Havana informing him that Arsenio wanted him to join his band. No-one knows how Arsenio had heard about Lili but he was legendary for his intuition in choosing musicians, sometimes even without hearing them play. This time, too, he made the right choice. Lili became the band's main arranger as well as their pianist and remained with the conjunto, first under Arsenio and then with Chappottín, until he retired in the '70s.
Arsenio's conjunto of this period was probably the strongest ever to play Cuban music. The band was massively popular amongst the black public but they were not hired by the white people to play for their weekend balls in the casinos and nightclubs, partly because they were racially prejudiced but mostly because they were unable to dance to the African influenced rhythms that Arsenio was inventing. The only place for Arsenio to play was at the open-air balls held every Sunday afternoon in the gardens of La Tropical. (La Tropical was actually a brewery).
The line-up of the band in 1946, and it's really to die for, was as follows:
Felíx Chappottín, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, Carmelo Alvarez ,trumpets;
Arsenio Rodríguez, tres;
Lili Martínez, piano;
Carlos Ramírez, guitar and second voice;
Lázaro Prieto, bass;
Félix "Chocolate" Alfonso, tumbadora (conga);
Antolín Suárez "Papa Kila", bongo;
René Scull, vocal.
Chocolate Armenteros did not stay long with Arsenio. The trumpet line-up for the 1948 recordings was Rafael Corbacho, Félix Chappottín and Rubén Calzado.
There are two albums on the Tumbao label dedicated exclusively to this period of Arsenio's conjunto. Both are great albums but the magnificent Montuneando (TCD-031) has the edge. Arsenio's range as a composer is clearly displayed here. Many of his compositions such as Tu Reloj (a subversion of a traditional Spanish decima) and Dame Un Cachito Pa' Huele made use of spicy double entendres to sing sexually explicit lyrics in a seemingly innocent fashion. Others celebrate the important black barrios in Havana: Juventud Amaliana, dedicated to the barrio of Amalia, Juventud de Cayo Hueso, dedicated to the barrio of Cayo Hueso, A Belen Le Toca Ahora, Belen (Bethlehem) and El Cerro Tiene La Llave (El Cerro Has The Key), a pun on the barrio of El Cerro (the lock). Cangrejo Fue A Estudiar (Crab Went to School) is the comic fable of a boastful crab who goes to school where all his proud boasts are punctured. Adivinalo features a terrifying piano break from Lili Martínez and an electrifying horn climax. We should also mention Chicharronero and Semilla De Caña Brava.
Although Félix "Chocolate" Alfonso was the group's main tumbadora player, Arsenio's brother Quique continued to play with the group on occasion. The son montuno Kile, Quique Y Chocolate celebrates a rhythm section that must have been the envy of the world and reminds the people that they are dancing to a new rhythm.
The disc also includes the bolero La Vida Es Un Sueño (Life Is A Dream), Arsenio's most famous composition. The heart-breaking lyric of this bolero has its origin in very concrete events in Arsenio's life. In 1947 Arsenio made his first trip to New York to consult the eminent eye specialist Dr Ramon Castroviejo about the possibility of restoring his sight. One February morning, after an examination lasting less than five minutes, he was told that he would never see again. Arsenio returned to his hotel and lay down to sleep. Upon awakening a few hours later he summoned his brother Raúl and dictated the lyric. With this disc we are priveledged to be once again able listen to the original recording which has never since been equalled.
This is a magnificent collection of hits by the best conjunto that the world has ever seen. Superb compositions, arrangements and playing throughout. The respect that the musicians have for each other is constantly evident as the sonero introduces the instrumental breaks. Lili Martínez is absolutely superb throughout. One can only imagine what an impact he might be making on the musical world today had he survived to see the revival of Cuban music.
the second Tumbao album dedicated exclusively to Arsenio's Havana conjunto,
is another superb collection.
Particular highlights are Luís Martinez' guaguancó
Pueblo Nuevo Se Pasó,
Arsenio's wonderful son montuno
No Me Llores Más
and the weeping trumpets of the unforgettable bolero
Tengo Que Olvidarte.
(This composition is credited to Jacinto Scull, presumably a cousin).
Dundunbanza is an evil spirit who has been cast upon the singer.
A charming inclusion is Arsenio's Afro
Ta Benito Eh
with the voice of
Two further albums covering this period of Arsenio's career. A Todos Los Barrios (RCA, 1992) is the re-release of Ren Lopez's great 1974 compilation.
Oye Como Dice, a 1998 release on the hard to find Cubanacan label, is another excellent release.
During his 1947 trip to New York Arsenio participated in the recordings Chano Pozo made with the Machito orchestra on Gabriel Oller's SMC label. They can be heard on the CD Chano Pozo & Arsenio Rodriguez: Legendary Sessions", again on Tumbao (TCD-017) along with recordings made in Havana in 1948 and some medleys recorded in New York in 1953.
Of the 1948 recordings Monte Adentro has become a standard in the Cuban cancionero but other performances stand out more here: Tocoloro, which is unusual for dropping instantly into the montuno, and Yo No Engaño A Las Nenas (I don't deceive little girls).
The four medleys in 1953 will be quite fascinating to the Arsenio enthusiast. No matter what people say the band is not quite as strong as his Havana conjunto. René Hernandez does a fantastic job filling the seat formerly occupied by Lili Martínez but the trumpets, whilst strong, don't quite have the character of Calzado, Chappottín and Corbacho. However it's the drums where I most notice the difference, especially the bongocero, who doesn't quite seem to fit. (René Scull's introductions give a clue to their names: Pipi and Manuel. If anyone knows who they might be, please tell us!) Lazaro Prieto is still rock solid on bass.
However to fill the void Arsenio produces some of the best tres playing of his life. In the first medley - Cumaye / Semilla de Caña Brava / So Caballo - he produces an extraordinary tres solo during the opening montuno in completely free time, yet without ever losing the underlying rhythm. Then in Los Guapos En Yatera / La Yuca De Catalina / El Reloj De Pastora he does it again - twice!
The final medley is Que Caña / Mi China Me Botó / Cangrejo Fue A Estudiar. Lazaro Prieto's bass playing in the opening son is hynoptic; the arrival of the second theme is like the lifting of a spell.
We don't know who did the arrangements for these medlies. Perhaps it was Arsenio himself. Sometimes the changes pass smoothly, at other times they are accomplished with electicifying horn cascades.
The long playing record had just arrived in 1953 and Arsenio takes full advantage: all these performances stretch out beyond the five minute mark.
Disillusioned by the lack of opportunity in Cuba Arsenio decided to leave for the United States. Some sources say this took place in 1950, others in the spring of 1952. He took with him his brothers Quique and Caesar, his vocalist René Scull (his cousin), and his bass player Lázaro Prieto, but the rest of the band remained in Cuba under the direction of trumpeter Félix Chappottín.
Like thousands of Cubans before and after him Arsenio first went to Miami but hated it there because of the racial prejudice he encountered, settling instead in the South Bronx district of New York, a lively Puertorican neighbourhood. Arsenio telegrammed Chappottín telling him he could change the name of the band if he wanted to because he had decided to remain in the United States. Little did he know that he would never set foot on Cuban soil again.
The new conjunto he organised there featured René Hernandez on piano, Mario Cora on trumpet and Candido Antomattei on vocals.
Arsenio's popularity in New York was never to match what it had been in Cuba. His arrival coincided with the peak of the mambo craze. The three big latin bands of the day were those of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito, all of which were heavily, if memorably, influenced by jazz. Arsenio's African sound proved to be about twenty years ahead of its time.
Como Se Goza En El Barrio (TCD-022), again on Tumbao, brings us the first recordings made by this new group in 1953. Swing Y Son is a witty blending of the son-montuno Cumaye with Glenn Miller's classic In The Mood! The CD is transferred from an LP on the Tico label.
Arsenio continued to innovate in the United States. In 1957 he released Sabroso and Caliente, incorporating timbales and even, on Devuelveme La Ilusión and La Fonda De Bienvenido a flute. This is by no means an attempt to copy a charanga instrumentation: the horns are still present and the interplay between horns and flute is masterful.
This CD re-issue on Antilla (CD-586) is the of most basic kind possible: a recording of a surviving LP, with a photograph of the sleeve for the cover art, and no sleeve notes whatsoever! The masters are not of the very best quality but the album is a must just for the awesomely powerful recording of Arsenio's son-montuno Mamí Me Gustó which will sound eerily familar to anyone who has been enjoying the recent revival in Cuban music: Ibrahim Ferrer covered it on his 1999 debut album on World Circuit. Arsenio's band are just all over the all star band assembled for that occasion.
Lili Martinez' Hay Fuego En El 23 is another standard associated with Arsenio's conjunto. El 23 was a musically rich solar located in the barrio of El Cerro, next to Havana's former 7-Up factory.
Arsenio Rodriguez on the Spanish label Discmedi was one of the very first Arsenio CD reissues. As such, it was released at a time when there was almost nothing else available and it attempts to present Arsenio's work from every perspective, including that of contemporary artists who have covered his work. Thus only nine of the thirteen tracks are actually Arsenio perfomances. The bulk of the album is taken from Sabroso Y Caliente - six tracks; then there is one track from the fourties period; one from Arsenio Rodriguez y su Conjunto vol.1; and one from Palo Congo. Excellent sleeve notes from Zoila Gomez Garcia.
This was a great disc to get a few years back but with the re-issue of Sabroso Y Caliente it's no longer a necessary purchase.
The Spanish label Musica del sol has just released its first Arsenio disc, Fuego en el 23. This is a mixture of 40s and 50s material with good sound quality, some of it not available elsewhere.
This series is hard to find outside the Spanish speaking world.
In April 1957, six members of Arsenio's conjunto, including, besides Arsenio himself, his two brothers Quique and Caesar,
sessioned with Saba Martínez on Palo Congo (Blue Note 26655).
Palo Congo is an an Afro-Cuban religion of Congolese origin, similar but not identical to the religion of the Yoruba people.
The music takes the form of a percussion and voices workout.
Blue Note have just re-released this album.
In the late 1950s Arsenio released Primitivo. For years it was only available as a Japanese import but it has just been re-released. You can get it from Combo records.
In 1962 Arsenio recorded Cumbanchando con Arsenio (Fiesta en Harlem) on SMC, on which he can be heard singing on one of the tracks. It has never been re-issued.
Arsenio's conjunto was left behind by the rapid metamorphoses of pachanga and the boogaloo craze. Despite attempts to follow the trends his band gradually declined
In 1960 Arsenio released two new albums in the conjunto style on Ansonia, Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto, Vols. I and II. These two albums were released as a single CD by Ansonia in 1993. That album is now unavailable but it has been re-released by the French label Edenways.
These LPs are described as "very strong" in a number of places but I can't bring myself to like them. The opening track, El Reloj De Pastora sounds emasculated compared to the 1940s version and I find the whole thing a bit sad.
Another LP on SMC, Cumbanchando con Arsenio (Fiesta en Harlem), was recorded in New York around 1960-1962. It has never been reprinted on CD.
Then in 1963 came Quindembo/AfroMagic, an innovative experimental album blending jazz influences with son and more earthy Afro-Cuban religious elements. On this album Arsenio drops the trumpets for two saxophones. Arsenio called this style "Quindembo", which he claimed is a Congolese word meaning a mixture of many things. This was reprinted on CD but is now deleted.
In 1963, at the height of the pachanga craze, Arsenio released an album of pachangas on Tico. It's never been reprinted.
Arsenio also appeared on the landmark album Patato y Totico, released on Verve in 1968. This record also includes Israel "Cachao" Lopez on bass.
The last album Rodriguez recorded was Arsenio Dice, a 1968 Tico release. again using a trumpet / sax combination.
Arsenio Rodriguez died penniless in Los Angeles in 1972, a forgotten figure, just as Johnny Pacheco and the Estrellas de Fania were re-popularising the conjunto format.
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Coming soon: a look at the bands that followed in Arsenio's footsteps such as Conjunto Chappottín.