Cuban musician, composer and bandleader, Arsenio Rodriguez was born in Güira de Macurijes, Matanzas 30 August 1911, died 30 December 1970.
He played tres (type of guitar) and specialised in son, rumba and AfroCuban music styles. Blind from the age of 7 he became one of Cuba’s top tres players. In the 1940s and 1950s he developed performing son in the conjunto (big band) format (he formed the first conjunto in 1940) and contributed to the development of the son montuno which is the basis for modern salsa.
Almost all scholars and fans highlight Arsenio’s impact on the big band as the ideal format in playing son, in the hatching of mambo or in the birth of salsa. However, there are few who remember that in the last concert offered by Ignacio de Loyola Rodríguez Scull, – Arsenio’s true name – in New York’s Central Park, he released a new rhythm that he called quindembo, in which he used, in addition to the instruments of his old ensemble, the yuka drums, and the texts of the pieces performed were in the conga language.
Quindembo according to Fernando Ortiz was an “Afro-Cuban dance brought by the Congolese. It is danced to the sound of three drums called: yucca, mule and box.”
Among the songs written as Quindembo pieces by the “Ciego Maravilloso”, as Rodriguez was known, are ‘Alabanciosa’, ‘Baila simbalé’, ‘Canto abakuá’, ‘Compay cimarrón’, ‘Youth dance changüí’, ‘Mona, ‘Oración lucumí’, ‘Hot Quindembo’, ‘Torongombe already fell’ and ‘Yimbila’. The composer often took his themes from Afro-Cuban liturgies or prayers.
The grandson of Congo slaves, Arsenio was particularly exposed as a child to musical traditions of African descent, such as the rumba or the rhythms of Santeria and Palo Monte (both syncretic religions). These two elements – the African and the Cuban – coexisted in his identity in a differentiated way.
David F. García, professor of music at the University of North Carolina, in ‘Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music’, affirms that the racial and national identity of Arsenio appeared “… marked by a double commitment towards his African heritage, on the one hand, and towards his Cuban heritage, on the other”.
In Arsenio’s son compositions the reference is broad: “Give me a little pa’huelé”, “Ñañaseré”, “I remember lucumí”, “Tumba palo cucuyé”, “Vacuno”, “Yo soy kangá” and “Yo soy Makuá”.
One of the most hermetic songs due to its language, but at the same time the one Arsenio is best known for composing is ‘Bruca Manigua’ (1937). In the lyrics of this son, a highly Spanish style is combined with whole phrases in the Congo language.
Although the first line declares: “I am Carabalí, black flower”, the theme is not Abakuá, but congo. The song consists of the lament and the denunciation by a slave directed against the mundele (the white masters) that “… it fits with my heart / both matratá, cueppo va fuirí”. The words accompanying numerous Congolese rites are then chanted: “…abre kutawirindinga” (open your ears and listen to what I say). There is a verse in it that reads: “E’tánkangando a lo mundele / bruca manigua …”
In 1969, Rodriguez was invited as a Latino representative to the prestigious “Festival Of American Folklife” in Washington. The idea of the organizers was “… to celebrate black music, through the languages of the New World”, bringing together groups that sang in English, French and Spanish. But, Arsenio surprised Bernice Johnson Reagon, the organizer, indicating that his music was sung in African dialects and not in Spanish.
Towards the ending of his musical career, he created a style he called ‘swing son’. His last album was released in 1968.
Arsenio passed away in 1970 in Los Angeles. As a musician, composer, performer and musical experimenter, Arsenio is regarded as one of the giants of Cuban music. He went on to influence many Cuban musicians that came after him, while also influencing American musicians.